Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Restoration of rights to 13 Florida felons to be re-examined

By Steve Bousquet, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Published Thursday, September 24, 2009

TALLAHASSEE — Citing "mistakes" by the Florida Parole Commission, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink tried Thursday to revoke the unauthorized restoration of civil rights to 13 people, including a man who raped a minor.

But her colleagues on the state Board of Clemency, including Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum, Sink's opponent in the 2010 governor's race, opted for a more deliberative approach and agreed to consider the cases at their next meeting in December.

State auditors uncovered the 13 cases last week in a report that faulted the Parole Commission for lapses in processing civil rights restoration requests.

"We probably ought to rescind those rights that were awarded," Sink said. In addition to a case of statutory rape that was not eligible for automatic restoration under the new rules, she said two other cases involved aggravated battery and that four felons failed to make financial restitution to their victims.

"We should look at them," McCollum agreed. "I don't think a decision needs to be made today, but it needs to be looked at." Added Crist: "I agree."

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, the fourth clemency board member, said the 13 cases were "an accident" and that he "would feel bad" if people had their civil rights stripped away a second time, especially if they had not committed new crimes upon release from prison.

The identities of the 13 felons at issue are unknown, even though they are eligible to vote, run for office or serve on a jury.

Most clemency records are confidential under state law, but the governor has the discretion to release records.

Crist, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said he had no plans to release the records. "I want to take the opportunity, as I said, I think the whole board wants to review the facts and wants to have the chance to be briefed additionally by staff, in my case by my general counsel, and make appropriate action."

The audit also said about 28,000 cases were delayed for more than two years because they were for felons whose crimes were in other states or in federal courts and unlike most civil rights petitions were not channeled through the Florida prison system.

Sink questioned Parole Commission Chairman Fred Dunphy after some petitioners at Thursday's public hearing said it took them six years to receive a pardon for their past crimes.

Dunphy said pardon investigations are the most complex and time-consuming. He defended his agency's performance, noting it has processed more than 200,000 cases in the 21/2 years since Crist spearheaded a streamlined system for felons to get their civil rights restored.

"This was a brand-new procedure, so we were kind of building as we went along," Dunphy said.

Noting that the 13 flagged cases out of a group of 203 represented a 6 percent failure rate, he said: "You might say the glass is 94 percent full."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

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