Ag. Commissioner Asks Governor To Drop Amendment 4 Appeal, Reform Clemency Board

Jun 10, 2020

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to drop his appeal of a recent court ruling regarding Amendment 4, which restores the voting rights of millions of ex-felons in Florida, and to reform the state’s controversial Clemency Board, the statewide body that decides whether felons can have their rights restored.

“I'm asking for the clemency board to do what is right, which is conscionable with empathy, and that is to redo our clemency rules and to have an automatic restoration of rights once you have left the system and you are no longer in prison or jail,” Fried, a Democrat, said in a virtual press conference on Wednesday. “It is way overdue and these are just small steps that we can be taking to finally bring justice to our state.”

Amendment 4 overturned a 150-year-old law that permanently disenfranchised people with felony convictions - effectively restoring the right to vote for about 1.7 million Floridians, many of them African American. According to ProCon.org, more than one in five black Floridians are disenfranchised. But seven months after the constitutional amendment was overwhelmingly approved by Florida voters in 2018, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill limiting re-enfranchisement to only those who have paid all of their court-related debts, saying the law was needed to clarify the amendment. 

That law, which critics said amounted to a “poll tax,” triggered a lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs argued that the requirement to pay all fines and fees effectively creates a lifetime sentence for crimes that ex-felons have tried to leave in the past.

In May, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle found that law unconstitutional, bringing hundreds of thousands of felons one step closer to getting back their right to vote. Gov. DeSantis has since said he would appeal that decision.

Before the passage of Amendment 4, restoring felons’ voting rights was solely in the hands of the state’s Executive Clemency Board, which is made up of the governor and some of his Cabinet members. Florida’s clemency process has been a hot button topic for years.

When then Republican and now Democrat Charlie Crist became governor in 2007, he made it easier for felons to get their voting rights back. He automatically restored rights to those who were convicted of nonviolent crimes after they had served their sentences. Crist is now the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 13th District.

But, in 2011, then governor and now Senator Rick Scott made it more difficult for felons to restore their voting rights, making them wait at least five years after finishing their sentences to even apply to have their voting rights restored, as was reported by the Palm Beach Post.

During Crist’s four years as governor, more than 150,000 Floridians had their voting rights restored. Gov. Scott, on the other hand, restored voting rights to about 3,000 people during his time in office. A Palm Beach Post investigationfound that Gov. Scott restored rights to the lowest percentage of African Americans and the highest percentage of Republicans in 50 years.

There are about 17,000 pending applications waiting to go before the DeSantis administration’s Clemency Board. The DeSantis administration has restored voting rights to 24 ex-felons so far, according to a spokesman for Fried. In former Gov. Scott’s first year in office, he restored the rights of 78 people.

Additionally, Fried says there are around 600 pending clemency applications that don’t require a hearing.

“Both myself and CFO [Jimmy] Patronis have already sent letters into the governor's office saying that we are automatically yeses. So all it takes is literally the governor to sign a piece of paper and all 600 of those individuals will automatically have their rights restored,” said Fried, the Florida’s sole state-wide elected Democrat.

Gov. DeSantis recently postponed upcoming Cabinet and clemency meetings, which were scheduled for next week. That Clemency Board meeting would have been the first held during this calendar year.

“Given the historic protests across the nation concerning civil rights of black people, Gov. DeSantis and the Clemency Board must fix this shattered system that unfairly punishes black Floridians and denies them their constitutional rights,” said State Rep. Tracie Davis (D-Jacksonville), one of several elected officials to join Fried during Wednesday’s press conference. “It's past time that our government shows us that black lives really matter.”

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.