Photo: Carles Rabada via Unsplash

Florida disenfranchises more of its citizens than any other state. This November, voters have the chance to change that.

Demetrius Jifunza is a lot of things. He’s a father and a husband, a student and a public speaker. He’s vice president of the NAACP chapter in Sarasota, Florida, and served as a pastor at his local church. He’s enrolled to earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling and hopes to someday open his own practice to help prisoners better assimilate back into society once they’re released. And by the end of 2018, Jifunza hopes he can be seen as an upstanding citizen in the eyes of the state.

As an ex-felon in the state of Florida, Jifunza can’t vote, serve on a jury or hold public office. To reinstate his civil rights, Jifunza has to petition a clemency board—made up of Republican Governor Rick Scott and three of his cabinet members—and plead his case as an upstanding citizen. Whether or not a convicted felon’s rights are restored is at the strict discretion of Scott and the board, whose draconian approach to clemency has seen fewer than 10 percent of applicants approved.

Some 1.5 million ex-felons have been stripped of their civil rights in Florida, one of just four states to impose such punitive bans on citizens who’ve served their time. In November, Floridians will have a chance to change that. If Amendment 4 receives 60 percent approval, the state’s nonviolent ex-felons—many of whom ended up behind bars on theft and drug charges—will have their voting rights fully restored.

Righting Wrongs

It’s been 23 years since Jifunza—then just 17 years old—found himself an accessory to a crime. He admits he drove the car, but insists he didn’t know his friends planned to commit a robbery. And he didn’t know about the gun. When police pulled them over and discovered the weapon, Jifunza was arrested, tried as an adult and slapped with the mandatory sentence. In the years that followed he was in and out of prison—as he violated probation and fumbled responsibility for his future—until he got his act together in his early twenties. He earned a paralegal degree. He traveled throughout Europe and Africa. Once back in the states, Jifunza married his high school sweetheart and settled down to start a family.

But the young man’s past loomed over him like a cloud he couldn’t escape.

“The punishment isn’t just not being able to vote or not having certain civil rights,” he says now. “There’s a mental aspect as well.” Potential employers turned Jifunza away with one glance at a background check. He often had to explain his conviction to peers, who couldn’t imagine the Demetrius they knew committing such a crime. Despite relative success transitioning out of the justice system, these constant reminders took shots at Jifunza’s self-esteem, making each step forward a struggle. “If it wasn’t for the support of my family, this would have been a different story,” he says.

Two years ago Jifunza met Desmond Meade, founder of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), a nonprofit group that worked to get Amendment 4 on November’s ballot. Meade encouraged Jifunza to start an FRRC chapter in Sarasota and inspired him to serve as an advocate for the cause.

“I believe everyone should have a voice after they’ve served the time given to them,” Jifunza says. “If you complete your sentence, come home, land a good career, pay taxes and live a productive lifestyle—why not?”

A Shady Past

Florida’s history of felon disenfranchisement dates back 150 years, when the Jim Crow-era restrictions were written into the 1868 constitution with the aim of keeping blacks away from the ballot box. Both then and now, minorities are disproportionately more likely than whites to face felony convictions due to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

The state saw temporary progress in 2007, when Republican Governor Charlie Crist changed the rules and restored the rights for hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders. But in 2011, Scott scrapped that system and reinstated the Jim Crow-era restrictions. Since then he and his clemency board have restored voting rights for roughly 3,000 ex-felons—less than 10 percent of those who’ve applied.

“They thought it would open a floodgate to the Democratic vote, and they didn’t want that.” -Former Governor Charlie Crist

Florida has been called “an outlier in denying voting rights,” both in terms of its laws and the sheer number of people affected. Of the 6.1 million ex-felons barred from voting across the country, one-quarter reside in the Sunshine State. In fact, the state “disenfranchises more of its citizens than Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee combined,” according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice.

A Statewide Issue

This might seem like an issue with few stakeholders, but research shows that restored civil rights can benefit both public safety and the economy. A 2011 report by the Florida Parole Commission found that recidivism rates (the number of ex-felons who return to prison) decreased by a third for ex-felons whose rights had been restored.

Meanwhile, the economic impact is immense. According to a recent report by the Washington Economic Group, Governor Scott’s policy change lead to a loss of around $385 million per year for Florida’s economy. On top of that, more than 3,500 offenders were estimated to have been sent back to prison and some 3,800 new jobs were left unrealized as a result of the renewed restrictions.

Commissioned by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national criminal justice reform organization, the WEG report “estimates that the passing of Amendment 4 would result in substantial positive economic benefits to Florida taxpayers.” The sources of these benefits would come from reduced court and prison costs and increased earnings through improved employment for ex-felons.

Such a policy change also has the potential to transform voter demographics in Florida, in a famously “purple” state. There isn’t enough hard data to claim boosts for Democrats or Republicans, but comments made by Governor Crist after he left office hint at the impact this policy change might have. Speaking to the Naples Daily News about the pushback he received on his clemency plan from Republican party leaders, Crist said, “They thought it would open a floodgate to the Democratic vote, and they didn’t want that.”

Felon disenfranchisement has already proved to be a hotly contested issue among Florida lawmakers. Earlier this year, a federal judge ordered Scott’s administration to change its rules regarding clemency, deeming its decision-making process arbitrary and unconstitutional, but Scott resisted and in April was handed a victory by a federal appeals court ruling. It’s now up to voters to decide.

And it’s a far less controversial topic to the public. A poll conducted by the University of North Florida earlier this year found that more than 70 percent of Floridians approve the measure—10 percent more than Amendment 4 needs to pass.

Historically speaking, this policy has had one aim since its inception, according to University of South Florida anthropology professor Susan Greenbaum, who focuses on the impacts of racism and poverty and serves as secretary of the Hillsborough County chapter of the League of Women Voters. “To keep black people from voting. It was designed to do that, and it still does that today.”

But for advocates at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, this isn’t a political calculation. Neil Volz, treasurer at the FRRC, emphasizes that restoring civil rights is about bringing opportunity back to individuals who’ve served the time demanded of them.

“When a debt is paid it’s paid,” says Volz, who was convicted on a fraud charge over a decade ago. “That’s the heartbeat of what we do. No matter where people come from. No matter what their political persuasion or background. When your debt is paid it’s paid.”

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