By: Jessica Chiappone, Florida Rights Restoration Advocate

In 1988 I was arrested and subsequently convicted of conspiracy to possess cocaine in New York. Since my release from prison over 15 years ago my right to vote was automatically reinstated pursuant to New York law. In 2007, I moved from New York to Florida.  However, my right to vote was not acknowledged by full faith and credit in Florida because pursuant to Florida’s Constitution, a citizen cannot vote unless their “rights” are restored.  Florida is one of three states that permanently disenfranchises individuals due to a past felony conviction. The other two states are Kentucky and Iowa.  

jessica aclu Jessica Chiappone, Florida Rights Restoration Advocate

In early 2008, after applying to law school, I began the grueling process of having my rights restored in Florida.  At the time I applied, it was under the Crist Administration.  Even though Governor Crist had made rights restoration automatic for non-violent offenders, the additional application process created an insurmountable backlog. When I graduated law school in 2011, my application was still pending due to the backlog.

Unfortunately, in 2011, newly elected Governor Scott and his Cabinet, disposed of Crist’s automatic right’s restoration policy and implemented a new case by case application process which was applied retroactively to all pending applications.

Not having my rights restored upon graduating from  law school prevented me from taking the Florida Bar exam, creating a spiral effect financially on my ability to support myself and my children. One may not realize how a policy of felony disenfranchisement can have such detrimental effects on successful re-entry.  Now, with over $200,000 in student loan debt after doing exactly what society wanted me to do, (go to back to school and become a productive member of society), I’m  forced to live with my father who is on a fixed income and cannot afford to help me  in any other capacity other than providing a roof over our heads.

In 2012, in one of several status checks on my application, I discovered that my application was closed because the Florida Parole Commission (now Florida Commission on Offender Review) could not locate me. Even though that at the time, I was the Vice President of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and the Florida Parole Commission was consistently invited to the organization’s events, a simple google search would likely make locating me relatively easy.

In the end, my rights were not restored until 2013, only after an intrusive interview process and subsequent hearing before the Clemency Board, which, based on my offense, I was not required to have.  Although it took over five years to have my rights restored in Florida, the majority of people wait nearly 10-13 years. Since applications are still being processed from 2006 and I applied in 2008, I believe my application was expedited because of the work I have done in the area of rights restoration and re-entry issues.

Now, two years after having my rights restored and four years after graduating from law school, I still haven’t been able to take the Florida Bar exam because of financial barriers, coupled with the fact that I’m forever barred from applying for food stamps, or rent in any rental communities in my area even if I could afford to do so.

How can society on one hand want returning citizens to “do the right thing” and become productive members of society, yet at the same time restrict almost any opportunity to do so?

Although the administration’s own statistics show that over 99% of returning citizens whose rights are restored do not recidivate, in four years, the Clemency Board has only granted 1,534 applications.  For perspective, there is estimated over 1.54 million Floridians who cannot vote as a result of felony disenfranchisement.

On the heels of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voting rights is at the forefront of our country’s consciousness. You would think we would have learned our lessons by now.  Yet, particularly since the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013, over 21 states have made it harder for individuals to vote by placing various ID restrictions, reduced early tote days, and placed restrictions on voter registration.

It is time to remove all barriers to voting and ensure that all citizens can fully participate in our democracy and exercise their right to vote.