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Automatic? A Case Study on the Florida Civil Rights Restoration Process

By robert · On Thu, 01/07/2016 - 00:08 · In Demo Posts

"Automatic? A Case Study on the Florida Civil Rights Restoration Process" (2009) is my undergraduate honors thesis about the process that ex-felons navigate when trying to regain their civil rights. It still remains relevant today so I posted it here.

In 2007, then Governor Crist touted his changes to the clemency procedure as "automatic." Under the Governor's leadership, the Executive Clemency Board instituted a tertiary tier that "guaranteed" restoration of rights for all compliant, non-violent felons who applied, but was it "automatic"?

This project was funded by a $2,500 grant from the Bob Graham Center for Public Leadership (2008) and awarded magna cum laude.


Hundreds of thousands of ex-felons remain disenfranchised in Florida from an outdated and racially discriminatory system, a political and cultural backlash after the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era. Examining a state at the center of felony disenfranchisement, I use a modified case study to historically examine and evaluate the politics and policy of the Florida Civil Rights Restoration Process (CRRP). I analyze observations and interviews with ex-felons, administrators, citizen activists and archival documents, annual reports, and scholarly literature. I found the 2007 reforms are not fully “automatic” because inadequate records require ex-felons to manually apply to the Office of Executive Clemency, despite the significantly reduced backlog. The state legislature has been historically hostile to the Florida Parole Commission (FPC), often underfunding and redirecting the commission’s priorities. I recommend the FPC should be adequately funded pursuant to its statutory obligations and caseload. However, I believe a fully funded FPC is unlikely since the data demonstrates the state legislature has historically favored the Department of Corrections (DOC) over the FPC. 

Read each chapter below

The following case study was inspired by my desire to use my political science education to account for the fact that hundreds of thousands of fellow Floridians remain disenfranchised for a felony conviction—and millions more across the nation. The fact that the millions of felons and ex-felons remain underrepresented citizens in society is a problem for a contemporary liberal democracy and a social threat to my community and state. My focus on the disenfranchised came after having witnessed the 2000 Presidential Election and its reverberating effects on local, state, and national politics. My investigation into the current sociopolitical problem of the disenfranchised begins with a brief historical inquiry into the pre-modern and modern political and legal origins of felon disenfranchisement followed by a review of influential studies on felony and ex-felon disenfranchisement.

Civil disabilities for violating customary laws have existed for millennia. Classical applications of disenfranchisement—infamia in the Roman Republic—were applicable only to the social elites and the most infamous crimes. However, there exists a dichotomy between classical and contemporary applications of the civic disenfranchisement: current state disenfranchisement laws originated from racially motivated constitutional provisions primarily during the Reconstruction. Florida has the largest disenfranchised population in the United States due to the structure of the current system—the civil rights restoration process (CRRP)—requires an ex-felon to petition the state to begin the process of restoring their civil rights.

A felony conviction in any state will forfeit a Florida citizen’s right to vote, serve on a jury, hold public office, and hold certain state vocational licenses. The right to possess a firearm is also forfeited yet requires a different clemency process; therefore, “civil rights” will refer only to four aforementioned rights for the purposes of this study. The State of Florida requires “ex-felons,” formerly incarcerated individuals not under state supervision (probation or parole), to manually apply to restore their rights, hence permanent disenfranchisement. In early 2007, then-newly-elected Florida Governor Charlie Crist reformed the process to a tertiary structure (previously binary) and purported the reforms to be “automatic.” The Department of Corrections (DOC) should electronically transfer the newly released individual’s files to the Office of Executive Clemency (OEC) for processing thereby automatizing the process; however, inmates released before the 2007 reforms must still apply due to inadequate recordkeeping and noncompliance by the DOC. The reforms partly aimed to reduce the perpetual backlog of applicants. The administration of the CRRP is labor and time intensive, requiring the collaboration of several departments and government branches.

The ex-felon disenfranchisement process in Florida is an intersection of relevant social and racial quandaries, political inequalities, and legal incongruities afflicting a liberal democracy. While extensive literature exists on the sociological and political effects of disenfranchisement, the jurisprudence of delimiting suffrage rights and state politics and policy, the literature specific to Florida’s system is anemic. A systematic examination of Florida’s CRRP can yield substantive conclusions on a state process with consequential effects on the community, state, and nation. My case study analyzes the CRRP with respect to the State’s legal history, political development, bureaucratic administration, and interest groups’ opposition.

A Modified Case Study

The purpose of this case study is to analyze and evaluate the CRRP while accounting for the factors for its genesis and continuation. I use the case study method partly because it maximizes the contribution to discourse: although scholars typically have chosen a broader comparative and interstate analysis of felony disenfranchisement, I argue their methods, albeit effective at deducing critical implications of felony disenfranchisement, do not adequately account for the political and policy dynamics within Florida, the state considered to be the frontline for ex-felon disenfranchisement reform. The specifics-based approach inherent to the case study reveals a greater complexity for political and policy issues than previous survey-based comparative studies.

This case study combines the typical approach of a case study with an evaluative function. A detail-specific analysis of the CRRP adds to the discourse the political and policy nuances required to explain: how the CRRP has reached its modern form; why policy changes have been proposed, enacted and challenged; who is influential in the process, from government officials to interest groups; and, which reforms are politically feasible. This modified case study vertically evaluates the CRRP—from release to restoration—from the 2007 reforms and reinforces the notion that Florida ex-felon disenfranchisement is product of postbellum racism and a modern institution resistant to change from weak political will.

Making the Case Florida

Florida is an exceptionally applicable case because the magnitude and scope of Florida’s disenfranchised population, the involvement of several government agencies, and the structure of the CRRP. This study is appropriately introduced with a brief review on the pre-modern and modern origins of ex-felon disenfranchisement and its development in Florida’s constitution. Following the background, the CRRP will be deconstructed into actors, agencies, and amendments. The review of the 2007 CRRP reforms will analyze how public perception changed and its administration has adapted. After detailing the process, the methods and data—archival and contemporary public documents; interviews; basic participant observations; news articles—are examined to demonstrate the inequities of the present CRRP, the effectiveness of recent reforms, the political shortcomings of the state to effect change, and the attempts by interest groups to reform the system. The results show the 2007 CRRP reforms were effective but fall short of their purported value, “automatic.” Furthermore, the results demonstrate that the Republican-dominated legislature is not fully committed to advancing the caseload at the Florida Parole Commission. [/accordion_item] [accordion_item title="Chapter 2: Origins and Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement" icon="fa-bookmark"]

Origins of Civic Disenfranchisement

Felony disenfranchisement is not a novel idea: pre-modern civilizations civically disabled people for high crimes. In the Roman republic, infamia denoted the loss of certain civic rights and honor for violating a customary law (Pettus 192). Infamia was acutely shameful and employed in only the most shameful crimes (32). In the Middle Ages, the medieval parallel to infamia was the attainder—later spawning the modern form “felony” in English Common Law (29-34). Disenfranchising ex-felons, individuals convicted of a felony who are lawfully no longer under state supervision, was nearly politically inert until the Reconstruction. Whereas infamia applied to the highest of society for the most egregious of crimes, the United States conception of felony disenfranchisement were racially motivated postbellum laws targeting petty crimes, disproportionally committed by African-Americans. Felony disenfranchisement was a political apparatus in which white supremacists could retaliate and marginalize newly freed slaves  (Behrens, Manza, Uggen 2003; Brooks 2005; Chin 2007; Cholbi 2002; Fletcher 1999; Goldman 2004; Harvey 2002; Hench 1998; Hull 2006; Itzkowitz 1973; Litwin 2003; Manza and Uggen 2004, 2008; Miller 2005; Ochs 2006; Pettus 2005; Preuhs 2001; Shapiro 1993; Tindall 1949; Uggen 2004; Uggen and Manza 2002; Wheelock 2005).

The Reconstruction was a catalyst for political oppression and an incubator for inventive disenfranchisement policies. Most of the racially motivated disenfranchisement policies from the Reconstruction Era—grandfather clause[1], poll taxes[2], residency and literacy tests[3], felony disenfranchisement—were abolished by the mid-1960s yet felony disenfranchisement is thriving (Kessyar 2000). The prevalence of ex-felon disenfranchisement in the contemporary United States is anomalous as it is enigmatic. Many states, including Florida, wrote in felony disenfranchisement clauses during constitutional conventions during the Reconstruction.[4]  Apart from political influences, the persistence of felon bans on voting after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is supported by legal precedence.

On Monday June 24th, 1976, Supreme Court ruled in Richardson v. Ramirez[5] that the states set the limitations of the franchise.[6] The national precedent established in Richardson has often been criticized by academics a “perverse reading of an amendment designed to prevent disenfranchisement” (Fletcher 1999, 1900-1902; Harvard Law Review 2002, 1950). The ruling limited the precedent established in Reynolds v. Sims[7] in which justices ruled 8 to 1 that the right to vote “is of the essence of a democratic society” and any restrictions on those rights “strike at the heart of representative government.” Richardson is controversial because it curtailed established precedents on universal suffrage ideals and would arguably contradict comparable rulings in future cases. Only a decade later in 1985, the Supreme Court in Hunter v. Underwood[8] ruled the State of Alabama had enacted disenfranchisement laws with invidious discriminatory intent (by disqualifying people convicted of crimes of “moral turpitude”) and, thus violated the Equal Protection Clause (Brooks 2005; Chin 2004; Havard Law Review 2002, 1951). The Court ruled that for a state to the deny citizens the right to vote based on Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment does not exempt the state from the Equal Protection Clause: a retrospective limitation to precedent established in Richardson. Felony disenfranchisement jurisprudence does not prohibit felon bans on voting, but the cases have given rise to a litany of legal, social, political and economic arguments for and against felony disenfranchisement.  

Proponents for sustaining felony and ex-felon disenfranchisement often argue by removing the right to vote individuals gain a greater sense of civic responsibility and respect for the law (Cholbi 2002, 558-9; Dhami 2005, 239). Neo-Lockeans and Contractarians argue felons broke the social contract and therefore are politically and civically excluded (Dhami 2005, 239; Hull 2006, 51-3; Pettus 2005). The civic exclusion of criminals is a reflection of the virtue of its citizens, a Commutarian or Republican would argue, therefore the felon, whom is morally incompetent, should be excluded from society (Hull 2006, 50-51; Pettus 2005). Proponents sometimes posit disenfranchisement is a crime control method because either potential criminals will reconsider before committing crimes or ex-felons will rethink committing crimes since they know the consequences (Cholbi 2002, 545-5, 557-8; Dhami 2005, 239; Hull 2005, 43-6). Lastly, it is argued felony disenfranchisement is protection of the “purity of the ballot box”: it is a contemporary commonsensical view that disenfranchisement prevents criminals from colluding against the public, legalizing the laws they committed, or allowing criminals convicted of election fraud to vote in the very electoral systems they attempted to defraud (Cholbi 2002, 555; Goldman 2004, 640-3; Litwin 2003, 210-1; Price 2003, 370; Wood 2008, 6). The arguments for felony disenfranchisement are less common than the arguments against felony disenfranchisement.

The arguments against felony disenfranchisement are immense and varied: proponents for felon disenfranchisement reform (i.e. full felon enfranchisement, only ex-felon enfranchisement or partial ex-felon enfranchisement) levy arguments based on domestic and international citizenship jurisprudence and politics (e.g., Allard and Mauer 2000; Brooks 2005; Chin 2004; Cholbi 2002; Goldman 2004; Harvard Law Review 2002; Manfredi 1998; Pettus 2005; Shapiro 1993), racial disparities (e.g., Behrens, Uggen and Manza 2003; Brooks 2005; Harvey 1994; Hench 1998; Manza and Uggen 2004; Preuhs 2001), criminal justice and recidivism (e.g., Hull 2005; Manza and Uggen 2008), social and familial stability (e.g., Dhami 2005; Hull 2008), piety and virtues (e.g., Hull 2005; Pettus 2005), and economics[9] and implementation feasibility (Urbina 2009). The arguments for felony disenfranchisement reform are primarily predicated on the notions social integration and political empowerment will be accomplished via inclusion of felons and/or ex-felons (Dhami 2005, 243-4; Pettus 2005). These arguments for reforming (or abolishing) the practice are best contextualized with the various consequences of felony disenfranchisement. So, I will briefly review the implications brought by felony disenfranchisement in the United States, the practice of ex-felon disenfranchisement in Florida, then analyze the Florida CRRP in its past and current forms.

Consequences of Felony Disenfranchisement in the United States

Felony disenfranchisement was virtually a non-existent public issue until the 2000 Presidential Election. The debacle of the 2000 Election opened the proverbial policy window, as citizens began to increasingly understand the full political implications of felony disenfranchisement. The 2000 Election was a focusing event that identified serious political implications in highly partisan and narrow elections margins, incited grassroots awareness and activism[10], and generated political and administrative policy changes.[11] The aftermath of the 2000 election created a political and policy firestorm over the scope and implementation of felony disenfranchisement.

Some of the most significant research on felony disenfranchisement is by Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen (2002; 2004; 2008; Behrens, Manza, Uggen 2003; Manza, Brooks, Uggen 2004; Uggen 2004). Their research is important as it provides many of the social and political consequences—voter turnout, political participation, public opinion—of felony disenfranchisement in the United States.

Felony disenfranchisement prevents people from voting who would otherwise vote; furthermore, it’s estimated about 30% of felons and ex-felons would vote if legally permitted, at a conservative estimate (Manza and Uggen 2008, 179-80). It is estimated that felons, if legally permitted, would yield a Democratic advantage and a deciding factor in highly contested partisan Senate and Presidential elections—overturning past Republican victories and proving essential to some Democratic campaigns (190-98). The 2000 Presidential Election would have given Gore a 30,000-vote advantage in Florida had ex-felons, not even including currently incarcerated felons, been able to vote (192).

Valuable research in public opinion concludes that the Americans strongly believe people ex-felons should have the right to vote, but this opinion does not transfer to currently incarcerated felons (Manza and Uggen 2008, 218). Public opinion in states with similarly restrictive disenfranchisement policies like Florida generally supports restoration and retention of voting rights (Edwards 2007). The public shows widespread support for restoration of felons’ civil rights after completing their sentence; and few legal and/or political arguments are publicly made for actively advocating and expanding felony disenfranchisement  (Butler 2003; Pettus 2005; Simon 2002; New York Times 2004; 2007; 2008; Wood 2008).

Although there exists public support for post-release voting rights, there have been contemporary restrictions on felons’ voting rights. Since 1975, 11 states have restricted their felony disenfranchisement laws while 13 have liberalized disenfranchisement laws (Manza and Uggen 2004, 499). One notable example of public backlash to felons’ enfranchisement was in Massachusetts in 2000: a small group of prisoners formed a PAC and the public backlash is often credited with leading to a statewide ban on inmate disenfranchisement (Allard and Mauer 2000, 3; McElhenny 2000; Phillips 2000). In November 1998, voters in Utah overwhelmingly approved a measure disenfranchising inmates; and, federal inmates were disqualified to vote in Colorado and Oregon (Manza and Uggen 2004, 499). The prevalence of x-felon disenfranchisement has caused “collateral damages” on minority communities throughout the United States.

Felony disenfranchisement (depending on jurisdiction) revokes a host of civil rights and incurs a host of “collateral damages.” In Florida, the convicted felon loses the right to hold public office, serve on a jury, to hold certain state vocational licenses in addition to the right to vote. The “collateral damages” from felony disenfranchisement vary from becoming a politician to being eligible for federal welfare benefits (Hull 2005, 30-40). Given the presence of a background checks after September 11th, 2001, employers are reluctant to hire someone with a criminal record; furthermore, a survey of employers in five major cities found 65% would not knowingly hire someone with criminal record (33). Felons with drug convictions are ineligible temporally (or possibly for life)for federal benefits, such as student benefits like loans, grants and work-study programs under the Higher Education Act of 1965 (Hull 2005, 35; Wheelock 2005, 84-). Felons, especially with drug convictions, can be exempt from federal health benefits (subject to state preference), like TANF, Social Security, Medicare, and food stamps under the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and federal housing assistance, like vouchers to low-income, elderly and disabled people to subsidize private rentals (Hull 2005, 35; Wheelock 2005 84-7). Felons are often exempt from becoming a foster parent under the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, and upon release can have difficulty regaining  (possibly losing) parental rights (Hull 2005, 35). A felony conviction bears a double sentence: a person serves a finite sentence in prison yet reenters society with an indefinite social stigma aimed at excluding him from political, social, and economic benefits. And so, a felony conviction is a “civic death” in that an ex-felon remains in the social twilight between incarceration and integration.

Racial Origins of Ex-Felon Disenfranchisement in Florida

Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the states on average have significantly reduced ex-felon disenfranchisement laws and slightly broadened felony disenfranchisement laws (Manza and Uggen 2008, 49). Florida began disenfranchising ex-felons in 1838, nearly three decades before African-Americans men were granted suffrage.[12] The antebellum felony disenfranchisement laws were racially neutral, however, postbellum this was not the case (Hull 2005, 18). During the Reconstruction Era in 1868, the Florida Constitution was amended to comply with constitutional and federal laws although the 1868 Constitution would ultimately disenfranchise felons.[13] The Radical Republicans first controlled the constitutional convention of 1868 and omitted the felon disenfranchisement clause, but more moderate Republicans increasingly gained controlled ultimately included the felon disenfranchisement clause.[14] It is reported that at least five black delegates supported the inclusion of the provision and the details of their peculiar support is unknown.[15] The 1868 Florida Constitution consequently includes the felon disenfranchisement provision (including exclusion of mentally ill) in Suffrage and Eligibility, Article XIV §2:

No person under guardianship noa compos mentis, or insane, shall be qualified to vote at any election, nor shall any person convicted of felony be qualified to vote at any election unless restored to civil rights.

Further in the same Article, §4, the Constitution revokes the right to hold public office for persons that have committed “infamous crimes.” In 1885, the Florida Constitution was significantly restructured and Suffrage and Eligibility, Article VI, was revised with two additional sections: §8, the poll tax, and §9, preservation of the “purity of the ballot.”  The 1885 Constitution was a backlash against military reconstruction and the democratic reforms made in the 1868 Constitution (Colburn and deHaven-Smith 1999, 10). These racially inspired disenfranchisement instruments in these sections were part of a broader national trend to broaden the disenfranchisement laws to marginalize minorities, immigrants and felons (Hull 2005, 18; Keyssar 2000, 62-8; Manza and Uggen 2008, 41-68).

In the late 1880s, the rise of the Populist movement—Farmer’s Alliance—in Florida secretly brought together black and white farmers planning a then-radical reform agenda, e.g.,  direct election of Senators and state ownership of railroads (Colburn and deHaven-Smith 1999, 11). However, when Florida Democratic leaders discovered the secret racial collusion, they inspired a wave of devastating racial laws, especially the $2 poll tax of 1889, which essentially disenfranchised both white and black farmers (12). Subsequently in1888 through 1892, the percentage of black voters declined from 62 percent to 11 percent (12). By the early twentieth century in Florida there was a feeble all-white progressive movement and established statewide segregation ordinances (16). In 1907, Governor Napoleon Broward was advocating a federal purchase of land for blacks to live on separately from whites (16).

Succeeding Florida Governors were equally hostile to race relations in Florida. Governor Park Trammell (1913-17) overlooked twenty-one lynchings while in office and Sidney J. Catts’ (1917-21) vocal hostility towards blacks exacerbated race relations (Colburn and deHaven-Smith 1999, 18). The Governors were critical in suppressing the black vote and a comparable power still exists in modern Florida. The state’s hostility towards universal suffrage extends to race and gender: Florida was reluctant to support women’s suffrage and did not officially ratify (although symbolic) the 19th Amendment in Florida until 1969 (Colburn and deHaven-Smith 1999, 19). The black communities saw opportunities in both World War I and II to demonstrate their patriotism and achieve greater social equality; however, the results both times were an increase in white supremacy rhetoric, invigorated KKK membership, and greater disappointment in political leaders. It was businessmen that persuaded politicians to lower the racially hostility to promote commerce: it was the citrus owners in the 1920s and four decades later the Walt Disney Co. that would undermine racial extremism (Colburn and deHaven-Smith 1999, 18, 41). By the mid-1960s federal Amendments and laws would require Florida to revise its constitution once again.

The 1968 Florida Constitution most notably modernized the state government, reflected a national sentiment towards broader civil liberties and included expansive public records (i.e., Sunshine) laws. In Article §8(a) revised constitution granted the governor:

with the approval of two members of the cabinet, grant full or conditional pardons, restore civil rights, commute punishment, and remit fines and forfeitures for offenses. The Governor and members of the Cabinet collectively are the Clemency Board. Clemency is an act of mercy that absolves the individual upon whom it is bestowed from all or any part of the punishment that the law imposes.

So, the governor voting with two cabinet members[16] constitutes a majority. The modern structure of the Executive Clemency Board  (ECB) was thus established. The ECB is the ultimate and inevitable authority in clemency matters—broadly including the civil rights restoration process.

Review, Reflection and Objectives

The creation and development of the felony disenfranchisement was a racially motivated and—as demonstrated with past research—the practice has significant consequences disproportionately affecting minority communities. The CRRP and the practice of felony disenfranchisement remain supported by the precedent set in Richardson.[17] In Florida, the executive power of clemency has resided in government bodies and public officials, and has become increasingly centralized due to constitutional revisions in 1868, 1885 and 1968. This historical analysis is important because it lays the framework to understand, analyze and evaluate the contemporary CRRP.

In the following chapter, I detail the evolution of the CRRP and explain the current process and controversies. I then lay out my theses on how the CRRP has been modernized through legislative action, bureaucratic deficiencies, and court rulings; why CRRP policy changes were proposed, challenged, enacted or rejected; who the influential actors are in the CRRP, namely the Governor, Florida Parole Commission and activists groups; and, conclude with the reforms that are politically feasible or necessary to create an equitable and just correction to the disgraceful history of the felony disenfranchisement.


[1] Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915)—the literacy tests exemption under the Grandfather Clause was

ruled unconstitutional.

[2] Respectively, the 14th Amendment and the 24th Amendment

[3] Voting Rights Act of 1965 limited the use of literacy tests.

[4] See Manza and Uggen 2008, 238‐240, 247 for a fuller evaluation of the state‐by‐state development, adoption and rejection of felony disenfranchisement laws.

[5] 418 U.S. 24 (1974)

[6] “The exclusion of felons from the vote has an affirmative sanction in § 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment…We hold that the understanding of those who adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, as reflected in the express language of § 2 and in the historical and judicial interpretation of the Amendment's applicability to state laws disenfranchising felons, is of controlling significance in distinguishing such laws from those other state limitations on the franchise which have been held invalid under the Equal Protection Clause by this Court.”

[7] 377 U.S. 533, 544 (1964)

[8] 471 U.S. 222 (1985)

[9] The death penalty in several states may be abolished to save public funds; moreover, this is not a principled argument rather it is a practical argument for reform. It is not unreasonable to assume state legislatures are considering reforming disenfranchisement policies to deafen the budget shortfalls, although I found no data to support this claim.

[10] Non‐profit groups began and/or increased research on felon disenfranchisement, e.g., the Sentencing

Project, ACLU Voting Rights Project, Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Demos, and People for the

American Way.

[11] Federal laws were enacted, such as the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) and numerous state

administrative changes were implemented, such as cross‐referencing felon database to prevent purging

errors and ensuring the Department of Corrections implemented statutory obligations to assist felons in

applying to restore their rights pre‐release.

[12] Johnson v. Governor of Florida, 353 F. 3rd 1287 (11th Cir. 2003) at 1308. See Brooks 2005, 878-81 for further discussion.

[13] Johnson 353 F. 3rd at 1309.

[14] Ibid at 1295.

[15] Id. at  1309.

[16] In 1998, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to reduce the Cabinet from six members to the current three. So, the Executive Rules of Clemency were changed to agree with the amendment and only requires two of the three Cabinet members for a majority.

[17] 418 U.S. 24 (1974)

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The Civil Rights Restoration Process

Executive clemency covers a range of issues (e.g., firearm authority, pardons, commutations, relief from fines and forfeitures) while the restoration of civil rights is one duty. This case study is only on “civil rights”—to vote, to serve on a jury, to hold public office, to hold professional or vocational licenses—and the dynamics of the CRRP. Ex-felons, people convicted of a felony in the United States no longer under state and/or federal supervision, must meet several criteria when applying to have their rights restored. The ex-felon must not have an outstanding warrant or owe any restitution to victims or court fees to continue in the CRRP.

The CRRP involves several essential government bodies whose cooperation is necessary to the process.

Department of Corrections (DOC): The DOC sends the file to the OEC after the inmate has been released from state supervision.

            Office of Executive Clemency (OEC): The OEC receives the application from the DOC or directly from the individual. After entering it into the database, the OEC sends the applicant’s file to be investigated by the Florida Parole Commission, the investigative arm.

            Florida Parole Commission (FPC): The FPC is responsible with investigating applicants and, if necessary, a full investigation into their work and personal life. FPC sends the investigative file to a regional field office where all the data (interviews, etc.) are collected. The investigative file is sent back to the FPC Office upon completion. The FPC Office updates its database then returns the completed investigation file to the OEC. The OEC will prepare the file, make a recommendation to restore the ex-felon’s rights or not, then forward it to the Board of Executive Clemency.

            Board of Executive Clemency (BEC): The BEC is comprised of the Governor and the Cabinet and meets four times a year in the State’s Capital Building in Tallahassee, FL. They have the ultimate authority on the determination of the ex-felon’s civil rights. The approved applications are then merged with the Department of State Elections Division to “unblock” the restored ex-felons. (A breakdown of the CRRP is illustrated in the Figure 3-1, the Flow Chart of CRRP including Investigations.) The CRRP is more complex than Figure 3-1: it is very sensitive to external factors, like budget shortfalls and court orders, and its structure remains controversial.

Changes, Controversies and Critics

There have been numerous changes to the Rules of Executive Clemency over the past four decades; however, there are several significant changes that have influenced the scope of ex-felon disenfranchisement. In 1975, Gov. Reubin Askew removed “disqualifying factors” from the Rules Executive of Clemency essentially automatically restoring the civil rights of released inmates (FPPC 1976). Ex-felons seeking restoration of civil rights would not require a hearing or an investigation. During this time, the clemency backlog[1] was eliminated (Lewis 2006).

Figure 3-1: Flow Chart of Civil Rights Restoration Process including Investigations

Figure 3-1: Flow Chart of Civil Rights Restoration Process including Investigations

The CRRP would remain fully “automated” until the early 1990s when Gov. Lawton Chiles restricted the Rules of Executive Clemency (FPPC 1993). Starting in 1992 the Department of Corrections was required by law to assist released inmates with restoring their rights by furnishing the paper application and any personal assistance in completing the application (if requested by inmate).

After the 2000 Presidential election the public scrutinized the Florida CRRP and the purging techniques by elections officials. The ACLU of Florida’s Equal Voting Rights Project filed a class action lawsuit Florida Caucus of Black State Legislators, Inc. v. Crosby[1] on behalf of black state legislators challenging that the Department of Corrections failed to assist newly released prisoners with restoring their civil rights (ACLUFL 2001). In 2003, the First District Court of Appeals ruled that the Department of Corrections failed to inform and assist over 124,000 released inmates. The ruling inundated the FPC with a colossal backlog, but the entire list was verified within the year with additional funding provided by Gov. Jeb Bush (FPC 2004).  A different lawsuit Johnson v. Bush[2] brought by the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan policy and law institute, argued that the Richardson[3] was in fact wrong: felony disenfranchisement did violate the Equal Protection Clause of 14th Amendment and the federal Voting Rights Act for its original and continued invidious racial discrimination.

In early 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist came into office and enacted reforms to the Rules of Executive Clemency (Goodnough 4/19/2007). The rule change altered the CRRP from a two-tier process to a three-tier process. The novelty of this reform is the introduction of level 1 that restores the civil rights of non-violent (i.e., convicted of non-heinous felony defined in Rules of Executive Clemency) ex-felons (i.e., individuals with no outstanding warrants, victim restitution owed) upon receiving the application and a hearing and full investigation are not required. The effectiveness of this reform is mixed: it has reduced the backlog by restoring the civil rights to thousands of Floridians yet citizen advocacy groups complain the “automatic” rhetoric, by which it was introduced, is misleading (Goodnough 4/2, 4/5, 4/6 2007; Fineout 3/12/2009). The media attention is strongly in favor of a statewide automatic restoration process (Simon 2002; NYT Editorial 7/2004; 10/2007; 6/2008; Butler 2003).

Citizen advocacy groups have influenced the CRRP, state executive and the judiciary. The ACLU of Florida has been the most active and present voice of all groups advocating for ex-felon disenfranchisement reform. It is the leading organization in the umbrella group, Florida Restoration of Rights Coalition (FRRC). The FRRC is a grassroots organization that orchestrates protests and workshops across the state to raise awareness on felony disenfranchisement; however, the group’s size is modest and the Annual Convening consists of 40 people (FRRC 2008). On a national level, the Sentencing Project has long served as a national advocacy group providing timely and influential reports on the state of America’s corrections problems. The Sentencing Project provides insightful interstate analyses on felony disenfranchisement, and has done it much earlier than most organizations (Fellner and Mauer 1998; Allard and Mauer 2000).

However, for studies focused on Florida the research mainly comes from within the state. The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPPAGA) offers independent reviews on the activities of the Florida bureaucracy.[4] The other major evaluative agency is the Auditor General is a constitutional officer appointed by both chambers of the state legislature to audit programs and recent statutory implementation.[5] These government bodies provide a unique perspective to the daily operations in other branches of government.

[/accordion_item][accordion_item title="Chapter 3b: Florida Parole Commission" icon="fa-bookmark"]

Essential Role of the Florida Parole Commission

In the early 19th century Floridians were outraged after the death of Martin Taber, a young man and state prisoner that died while in forced labor for a lumber company. The state legislature proposed a constitutional amendment and by 1940 the electorate voted to end the practice of loaning prisoners. The voters created the Florida Parole and Probation Commission[6] (FPPC) with the primary objectives “the protection of society” and the “possible rehabilitation of worthy individuals” (FPPC 1941). The FPPC was appropriated $75,000 and tasked with supervising probationers and parolees. For the next 25 years, the commission was modest—never supervising more than 10,000 parolees and probationers combined (See Figure 3-2).

Figure 3-2: Probationers and Parolees under FPPC Supervision from 1943-76

Figure 3-2: Probationers and Parolees under FPPC Supervision from 1943-76

The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one national legislative priority that required Florida to restructure its constitution.

The 1968 Constitution ushered in a new era for Florida’s government: the State government was transformed as it attempted to meet with the demands of the turbulent 1960s.  Florida was experiencing unprecedented population increases and people were expecting more from their government: Floridians wanted a New Society (Colburn and deHaven-Smith 1999). The 1968 Constitution conferred greater powers to the FPPC and what once was a modest commission with a $75,000 budget became a 19-million dollar commission with over 1,300 employees, supervising over 50,000 people, expanding departments that operated in ten regions throughout the state, offering services from volunteer programs and a women’s center to rehabilitation and supervised work programs. The golden age of the FPPC was here.

The zenith of the FPPC is seen clearly in Figure 3-2: the significant increase of probationers and parolees under the FPPC from 1968 to 1974 is correlated with the increase in FPPC duties. However, the pinnacle of the FPPC was short lived: the state legislature enacted the Corrections Organization Act of 1975 (COA). The COA removed the probation function and many services from the FPPC to the newly created Department of Corrections (FPPC 1975). The Office of Executive Clemency (OEC) was created to help the FPPC with the clemency functions, since it was only a paroling agency. By 1976, the FPPC reduced its staff from 1,321 to 149 and the budget fell over 85% to a budget of $2,420,285 (FY 1976) and under two million dollars in FY 1977. In 1979, the ten regions were reduced to five, as the current structure of the FPPC began to form (FPPC 1979). The reduced FPPC would begin a trend of assuming a growing caseload of executive clemency files.

The FPPC evolves into the investigative arm for the executive clemency process. The FPPC uses its regional offices and examiners to investigate applicants before restoring sending their application to the Executive Clemency Board—the Governor and Cabinet. So, the process is hypersensitive to budget fluctuations. The COA of 1975 devastated the workload of the FPPC and consequently the workload for “restoration of civil rights without a hearing” was lower. Figure 3-3 shows the expected drop of RCR investigations in the early 1980s. However, the modest increase in field investigations is an expected until FY 1985 when there was small budget cut (FPPC 1985). The subsequent increase in field investigations through the early 1990s is a product of Control Release, an added duty to the FPPC. Since the assumption of Control Release duties, the FPPC saw an increase in the budget, thus more funds for “restoration of civil rights without a hearing” applications.

Figure 3-3: RCR Field Investigations

Figure 3-3: RCR Field Investigations

So, it is no surprise then that the precipitous decline in 1993 was due to the halting of the Control Release program and its funding (FPPC 1993). This time was also when the Rules of Executive Clemency became more strict and the “automatic” system ended. So, the number of cases increasing is expected because more time is needed to investigate cases that would have at once not required an investigation. The rest of the decade remains stagnant, however after the 2000 election the FPC received hundreds of thousands of applications.[7]     

The FPC has maintained different functions throughout its history: automobile license revocations in 1940s and 1950s, probation and parole in the 1960s, the pinnacle in 1975, paroling only agency in the 1980s, conditional and controlled release in the 1990s, and clemency in the 2000s. Figure 3-3 details the past three decades (1980s-present) with all applicable and available data during the time.

Figure 3-4: FPC Percentage Workload for Selected Years, 1983-2008

Figure 3-4: FPC Percentage Workload for Selected Years, 1983-2008

It is evident from Figure 3-3 that the 1980s the FPPC primarily focused on Parole, the 1990s were other activities, namely conditional and controlled release, and the 2000s has been a deluge of clemency applications. According to Figure 3-5 there is a correlation between the caseload level and the number of errors in the case files. 

Figure 3-5: Annual Percentage of FPC Case Errors and Clemency Workload​

Figure 3-5: Annual Percentage of FPC Case Errors and Clemency Workload

From 2002 to 2008, the lowest percentage of case errors (92.84%) occurred with the highest percentage of clemency workload (55%). The 2003 First District Court ruling[8] and subsequent 124,000-person increase in the caseload explain this disparity. The following decrease and increase in clemency workload is explained by the outreach efforts of citizen activist groups, such as the ACLU (OPPAGA 2006). The citizen activist groups have been influential in the increase in clemency applications, often hosting workshops, demonstrations and other media functions to raise awareness (FPC 2007).

Review and Reflection

The FPC has a history of changing priorities from probation to parole to conditional release to clemency. It has only been the past decade or two that clemency has taken the forefront in the FPC. Clemency field investigations have been directly influenced by the budgetary problems and amendments to the Rules of Executive Clemency. A burdensome caseload can influence the quality of work (i.e., case errors brought before the Board of Executive Clemency) and undermine the process. In the following chapter, I lay out my observations and recommendations with respect to the data considered.

[1] 877 So.2d 861 (Fla. 1st DCA 2004); James Crosby was the then-Secretary of the Department of Corrections

[2] 214 F. Supp. 2d. 1333 (S.D. Fla 2002)

[3] 418 U.S. 24 (1974)

[4] For reports on the CRRP by OPPPAGA, see OPPAGA 2001; 2006; 2009.

[5] The Auditor General has five reports on the FPC: Auditor General 1987; 1994; 1996; 2001; 2006.

[6] Later to become the Florida Parole Commission (FPC)

[7] The consecutive data is not available due to constitutional constraints.

[8] Florida Caucus of Black State Legislators, Inc. v. Crosby, 877 So.2d 861 (Fla. 1st DCA 2004)

[1] The data for the backlog is not available. See Figure 3-2 for the investigative caseload from 1980-1999.


[accordion_item title="Chapter 4: Results & Conclusion" icon="fa-bookmark"]

The Civil Rights Restoration Process (CRRP) is a complicated process that requires synchronization of all government actors to efficiently restore the rights of ex-felons.

  • The CRRP is inefficient due to burdensome statutory duties, budgetary shortfalls, government restructuring, and non-profit activism.
  • The 2007 reforms to the Rules of Executive Clemency have increased the efficiency of the CRRP, but the “automatic” rhetoric is misleading to eligible prospective applicants.
  • The state should revise the Rules of Executive Clemency to “automate” the CRRP upon release from state supervision; require no investigation and/or hearing; and, conform to a national standard.

The Florida Parole Commission is understaffed and underfunded by the state legislature with respect to the commission’s caseload. Concerns of quality and efficient investigations have historically plagued the commission.

  • The changes to CRRP have been made by a legislature that has historically been unsympathetic to ex-felons’ rights. Furthermore, the state legislature has introduced legislation in the mid-1990s and in 2007 to dissolve the commission and remove the remaining duties to the Department of Corrections.
  • A burdensome caseload results in more case errors before the Board of Executive Clemency and an even greater distrust in the system.
  • The Board of Executive Clemency is the most influential actor because the board holds the ability to fully automate the CRRP with an amendment to the Rules of Executive Clemency. 

The possibility of reform is most likely to occur at the executive level. Citizen activists groups made an ill-fated attempt for a state constitutional amendment in 2005. Given the legislature’s hostility towards the commission, the most political feasible reform is an incremental automation of certain clemency types, such as the 2007 reforms. The likelihood of a complete policy turnover is unlikely unless the Board of Executive Clemency has different leadership.