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Should convicted criminals have civil rights automatically restored?

Nearly 1.5 million people could get rights back if initiative passes

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Eighty convicted criminals asked for mercy Wednesday at the state Capitol.

The requests come four times a year, and many of those making them said they believe the system is inefficient and not working.

Robert French got busted 30 years ago smuggling pot. 

“I take full responsibility for everything I’ve done,” French said.

French got his rights back, in part, because he brought the sheriff-elect of Franklin County to speak for him.

“I should support people who have made mistakes but now are doing the right thing,” Sheriff-elect A.J. Smith said. “That’s what I want to do, because a lot of people make mistakes, but it doesn’t mean they are bad people.”

Florida is one of just nine states that require action by the governor to restore the civil rights of convicted felons. The clemency board meets four times a year, and there were only 80 cases on the agenda Wednesday. Fewer than half of those got their rights restored.

It wasn't always that way. In 2011, the current board reversed a policy started four years earlier that automatically restored the rights of non-violent felons. Attorney General Pam Bondi pushed the change.

“If you committed a felony, especially any type of violent felony, you should have to ask to have your civil rights restored,” Bondi said.

But voters could change the policy. The Supreme Court is set to review a proposed initiative restoring rights when a sentence is completed.

Melissa Beth Ann-Miller got her rights back the hard way, but she said she wants to see a change.

“Being a second-class citizen is indescribable to those haven’t been disenfranchised,” Ann-Miller said.

An estimated 1.5 million people could get their rights back if the initiative were to pass.

An average of 95 people a day are released from state prison. Rules require a felon to wait at least five years to apply to regain his or her rights.