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Should judges have power to restore felons' rights?

Proposal in Florida Legislature would have judges review cases

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A three-pronged effort is working to restore felons' rights in the state, with a proposal in front of the Constitutional Revision Commission, a ballot initiative gaining signatures and legislation. 

The newest proposal would give judges the power to restore felons' rights.

More than 22,000 felons are waiting to be granted clemency by the Office of Executive Clemency, but only a few hundred are processed each year. The average wait time is nine years.

“They’ll never catch up. Putting more money into the OEC, to me, is not a solution,” said Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Jacksonville. “If we double, triple, quadruple staff, we’re still not going to get the numbers as every day, more and more felons are leaving the system.”

New legislation would give judges the authority to restore felons rights after the person serves their time and pays any outstanding fines.

“All we’re doing is asking the same court that sentences that person to be able to restore their rights,” Byrd said.

Under the proposal, felons would be allowed to have a judge review their case once a year.

Justice advocates argue the courts are already backed up, and allowing judges to restore felons rights would add to the workload, potentially resulting in what already exists -- a backlog.

There are also constitutional concerns.

“The constitution doesn’t allow for that process,” said Barney Bishop of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance. “We have a process where the Cabinet does all the reviews for everybody that’s actually trying to get their rights restored."

Efforts are being made to change the constitution. 

The Constitutional Revision Commission is considering an amendment that would automatically restore nonviolent felons’ right to vote after they serve their time. 

A similar amendment has collected more than 490,000 valid signatures with as many as 500,000 more yet to be validated. Only 766,200 signatures are required for the proposal to make it onto the ballot.

Right now, 1.5 million Floridians are unable to vote because of felony convictions.