It came as a shock when I learned that committing a felony in Florida always means a life sentence. Not in prison, of course, but not free either.
With a felony conviction one cannot vote, run for elected office or carry a firearm. Ex-felons pay taxes, but they do not get a say in who is running their country. A conviction in Florida condemns felons to life-long status as a second-class citizen.
In Germany, where I come from, felons vote in prison.
The correctional facilities have to ensure that inmates can cast their votes with a vote-by-mail ballot in every federal, statewide or local election.
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Only their passive civil rights are taken away.
They cannot run for office while incarcerated. I guess that’s for practical reasons.
There is one exception: If somebody is convicted of treason or a similar crime, judges can decide they are not allowed to vote.
It bears a certain logic, taking somebody’s vote after they attempted to overthrow the government.
Nevertheless, in 20 years, this has happened just 79 times.
What is the logic of stripping somebody of their voice for committing any other crime? Felons are punished with many years in prison.
Taking away their right to vote is like stripping them of their civility. That seems like a throwback to the bygone days of a vengeful sovereign.
In no other state are so many people disenfranchised because of a prior felony conviction.
There are an estimated 1.5 million such individuals in Florida. That’s more than 10 percent of all Floridians of voting age.
It is no surprise that there is hardly any progress with regard to criminal justice reform when those who are most affected do not have a voice.
Florida not only leads in the number of disenfranchised, but it also has the toughest process for restoration of rights. Ex-felons’ only shot is an application to the clemency board.
I attended one of its meetings, which felt like a parade of outcasts. In the wood-clad meeting room in a Tallahassee basement, men and women came dressed in their finest clothes, but they did not wear them with pride.
They were there to ask for forgiveness for their sins although they had long paid their debt to society.
On the day I attended, 78 Floridians asked for a pardon or the restoration of their civil rights. Gov. Rick Scott, who chaired the board, said at the beginning: “Clemency is an act of mercy, not a right.”
Dozens appeared in person that day, and over the course of the hearing each tried to convince Scott and the Cabinet that they had become a better person. Each was granted five minutes. All had waited many years to bring their case.
They begged and argued. Some of them cried. The Cabinet asked questions about speeding tickets and employment and sometimes commended them for raising successful kids. After one man spoke, the audience cheered his successes.
But as the meeting progressed, I became increasingly distressed. Why did these people have to prove their worthiness?
In the end, 10 received pardons and 28 got a civil rights restoration.
You can be an awful person, mean to your siblings, a bully at school or cheat on your spouse and you can still cast a ballot on Nov. 8.
The petitioners, however, had already paid a high price for what they had done. But even after being locked up, separated from their families and friends, and given a number instead of a name, they still had to go through this humiliating process. Watching it, made me very uncomfortable.
By trying to suppress potential votes, Florida sacrifices the voices of many of its residents. More than 21,000 are waiting on their applications to be processed. In the meantime, they are part of a non-society. In Middle Age Europe, this was called vogelfrei — free as a bird.
Nobody could be made liable for any crimes committed against those who were outlawed. In Florida today, ex-felons, are vogelfrei. I never expected to find this medieval practice in America.
Lena Kampf, an investigative reporter with the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and the television station ARD, recently completed an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship at the Miami Herald.