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Unique FSU Course Explores Florida's Legal Battle Over Felon Voting Rights As It Unfolds

Florida State University
Credit Florida State University

A Florida State University Professor has brought together three of the school’s colleges to participate in a unique course covering the State’s ongoing legal battle over felons’ voting rights. At a recent class, Leon County’s Sherriff shared insight into how he, his peers and the formerly incarcerated view the issue.

Mark Schlakman has a good deal of expertise related to Florida’s system of restoring voting rights for those with a felony in their past. Schlakman, senior program director for FSU Law School’s Center for Advancement of Human Rights, even has an Amicus brief, or “friend of the court” brief filed in the Federal District Court case. It gives background and statistics that provide context to the issue. And he brings that historical lens to his class.

“Go back to ’75, which was about the same time that the office was established, the office of executive clemency. The Governor and cabinet have been the Clemency Board of quite some time, this was just the office,” Schlakman told his students. “But it was at that time that Florida’s standard was, restoration upon completion of sentence.”

The class of about 20 students is open to graduate and undergrad students. It brings in students from the Colleges of Law, Social Work, and Social Sciences and Public Policy. Schlakman says the idea was to have students, whose fields of study are related to the issue, discuss it as the legal battle unfolds. Schlakman calls it a “convergence of issues,” such as law:

“It goes right to the core of the principles of federalism, and separation of powers.”

Political science:

“It has principles of governance, so the college of social sciences and public policy, specifically political science.”

And social work:

“It has dimensions into re-entry, well the college of Social Work was immediately interested,” Schlakman said.

Leon Sheriff Walt McNeil spoke with the class about the intricacies of how having one’s rights withheld can affect recidivism.

“One of the things that, as I talked to those persons who were coming back, is that, there is no hope,” McNeil said. “When you take hope away from a person, and you say, ‘You are forever not a citizen of your community, because you don’t have the fundamental right of every citizen.’”

McNeil is a member of the Big Bend AFTER Re-Entry Coalition. AFTER, an acronym, stands for “A Fight to End Recidivism.” He’s also a former Florida Department of Corrections Secretary. McNeil has met with representatives of South Korea, and visited Iceland to compare how both nations’ penal systems seek to lower recidivism. 

McNeil told the class a population without voting rights will become disconnected from the political process entirely.

“Keep in mind, from a political perspective – as a politician, that group is a non-group. Because they can’t impact me as a politicians because they can’t vote,” McNeil said. “If they’re given the right to vote, and they have a voice, and then they can exercise that power of the vote - I think you will see some change. And that’s part of the dilemma.”

McNeil says he has talked with peers who feel even after serving the sentence handed down by a court, felons should be penalized. Under the current clemency system, each person must wait a mandatory five years to even be considered for restoration.

“The belief by some in law enforcement is, that we need to punish people. That punishment needs to continue, and they need to prove that they belong back in society. And that’s why we’re talking about a five-year waiting period,” McNeil said.

Brooke, who requested her last name not be used, is a Political Science undergraduate student who enrolled in the class.

“I really enjoyed the conversation with the Sheriff and how he said, actually allowing people to be civically engaged will help decrease recidivism,” Brooke said.

Brooke says what McNeil shared with the class resonated with her own experience.

“Having seen different government programs in my own life in a low-income household – based on lack of education about those programs or a lack of awareness, I definitely see how that can psychologically effect somebody to be less civilly engaged,” she said. “Because you feel like the information is not easily accessible, or basically like it’s working against you.”

And Brooke’s theory seems based in reality. Using his own research on the numbers, Schlakman made a calculation on how many people have successfully had their rights restored via the current Clemency Board’s process.

“Over the course of the past seven and a half years, only about 3,000 people have regained their civil rights,” Schlakman said.

Those 3,000 people represent a drop in the bucket of the total people who have completed sentences. Schlakman says that’s about 60,000 people per year, and over the course of the terms of the current Governor and Cabinet nearly 450,000.

If Schlakman’s calculations are correct, that’s less than one percent of people getting rights restored. And that’s why, Schlakman says, he doesn’t treat the class as an advocacy course – instead using it to teach the true impact.

“This isn’t about left vs. right, or Republican vs. Democrat, it’s just cutting through the chaff,” Schlakman said.

Schlakman will teach the course on executive clemency again in the Fall, coinciding with the citizens’ initiative amendment calling for automatic restoration on the ballot in November.

Copyright 2018 WFSU

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.