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Scott, Cabinet OK new clemency restrictions

Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet approved a new policy on clemency Wednesday that will require many ex-felons to wait five years before they can seek restoration of their civil rights. The new policy erases the streamlining of the Jim Crow-era clemency process, adopted four years ago by former Gov. Charlie Crist and a different Cabinet.

The vote was 4-0 as Scott was joined by Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. All four officials are Republicans.

Scott said the changes would "protect public safety and create incentives to avoid criminal activity." He said people convicted of felonies should be required to submit an application to regain the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for public office or hold one of dozens of professional licenses.

The policy allows non-violent offenders to regain their rights without a hearing after being crime-free for five years after being released from prison. For certain classes of violent offenders that require clemency hearings, the waiting period is seven years.

A delegation of Florida sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors spoke in favor of the changes. The new policy, in a 24-page rule change, was originally spearheaded by Bondi, a former Hillsborough County prosecutor. "I believe that there should be a waiting period, and I believe someone should have to ask for their rights to be restored," Bondi said.

"The application process ensures accountability," said Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, a supporter of the new policy.

Critics said the change would worsen Florida's high rate of recidivism because ex-offenders will now face new barriers in trying to become productive citizens. "Once a person has paid their debt they should be quickly and fully integrated back into the community," said Danielle Prendergast of the ACLU of Florida. The NAACP, League of Women Voters and Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho also spoke against the new policy.

State Sens. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, spoke in opposition, as did Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee. Siplin criticized the Cabinet for tight restrictions on public testimony. Before speedily adopting the new policy, the board limited testimony to 30 minutes, with no speaker permitted more than two minutes of speaking time.

"Why the rush to go back to where we started from?" Joyner asked.

-- Steve Bousquet