Op-Ed

Amendment 4 will give felons their lives back, and save the rest of us money

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Florida’s 13 million voters have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help convicted felons who have paid their debt to society earn the right to vote, and a second chance. The Voting Restoration Amendment is a proposed constitutional amendment that would grant most of the 1.7 million convicted felons the right to vote and help select their leaders for local, state and federal offices.

That is a good thing. It makes sense.

To be eligible, these felons must complete “all terms of sentence including parole or probation.“ That means they would have completed house arrest, jail, and prison sentences and community service; paid restitution, court costs and fees; and fulfilled any other special conditions of parole or probation. Felons convicted of murder or a felony sex crime would not be eligible and would have to go through the regular executive clemency process.

Why is Amendment 4 on the November general election ballot? Because almost 850,000 Florida voters and taxpayers across the state signed a citizen’s initiative petition to let all voters make this decision. Those who signed span Florida’s political spectrum — not just registered Republicans and Democrats but also Independents, members of one of the smaller parties, or “Non-Party Affiliated“ voters (NPAs). Clearly, Amendment 4 has strong bipartisan and nonpartisan support.

Amendment 4 is good public policy and smart justice. Here’s why:

- Data from the Florida Commission on Offender Review prove that the vast majority of felons who get their voting and other civil rights restored do not commit new crimes. They have learned their lesson and are trying to earn the second chance they have been given.

On July 1, the Commission reported to the Board of Executive Clemency (made up of the governor and Florida Cabinet) that of the 992 felons who were granted restoration of civil rights in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, only one person was convicted of a new felony. (Yes, literally one out of almost 1,000 people.) If you consider data from the last seven fiscal years, a total of 5,344 felons were granted clemency restoration of civil rights and only 12 people were convicted of new felonies requiring state prison. Now that is smart justice.

- The reduction in the number of reoffending felons will have a positive $365 million economic impact, according to a credible economic study completed by the Washington Economics Group, based in Coral Gables. How? By leading to fewer prisons and more jobs and positive economic activity.

- Reduced prison construction and staffing costs will save $223 million. Florida taxpayers currently fund 56 major state prisons, numerous state prison annexes, camps and work release centers, 10 federal prisons and 67 county jails.

- Increased job earnings, taxes paid and economic investments by the felons themselves will generate another $142 million.

Many of the people affected are our family members, neighbors, co-workers, high school classmates, church friends and acquaintances of people we know. Except for their status as felons, they are regular Floridians who pay taxes, own homes and businesses, have kids, and contribute to our schools and communities. Many of their convictions were for small drug-possession or property crimes, often committed back when they were young.

Under Florida’s Constitution, getting voting and other civil rights restored currently requires a grant of mercy, and the process simply takes too long. A five- to seven-year waiting period must pass before one can even apply. Some felons seeking voting and other civil rights can be approved without a hearing, but most must wait several years to get a hearing and a decision. There are approximately 23,000 applications pending for all types of executive clemency.

Proposed constitutional amendments require 60 percent of voters’ approval to be adopted. Vote yes on Amendment 4, and save taxpayers money and help felons earn a second chance.

Reggie Garcia is a Florida lawyer and the author of two books on executive clemency: “How to Leave Prison Early” and “Second Chances-Florida Pardons, Restoration of Civil Rights, Gun Rights and More.”

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