The United Nations Committee on Human Rights is calling on states like Florida to change policies that restrict former felons’ voting rights. In a statement issued March 27, the committee said Florida policy, as well as policy in other U.S. states, is a violation of human rights.
The committee finds the U.S. out of compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that the U.S. signed in 1992. Florida is among four states including Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia that impose lifetime bans on voting rights for ex-felons unless they can successfully appeal to a clemency board.
Of the nearly six million former felons in the U.S. who can’t vote, about 1.5 million are in Florida. The ACLU of Florida’s Director of Advocacy, Joyce Hamilton Henry was part of a delegation that traveled to Geneva earlier this month to testify before the UN Committee. “I think what we see is an entrenched position in Florida,” said Hamilton Henry. “We saw that there was movement in the right direction by Governor Crist in 2007 where thousands of individuals were able to get their rights restored compared to, under Governor Scott, where we’re only seeing a couple of hundred.”
In a written statement issued last fall, Florida Executive Clemency Board member and state Attorney General Pam Bondi defended Florida policy saying felonies are serious breaches of societal trust and that former felons should have to wait the current five to seven years in Florida to appeal to have their rights restored.
The ACLU and the U.N. disagree. “We should not relitigating these individual cases,” said Hamilton Henry. “These individuals have now served their time in good faith with the understanding that release from prison, they’re able then to return fully as participating members of our society and engage in the democratic process.”
The UN’s statement calls on Florida and other states to automatically restore voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences. It also calls upon U.S. states to provide information to people facing felony charges before they make a plea that they will lose their civil rights as well as information about how to get their voting rights restored upon completion of their sentences.
Hamilton Henry delivered about six thousand petition signatures to Clemency Board members at a demonstration March 19, asking them to make voting rights restoration automatic upon completion of an ex-felon’s sentence.
The international covenant is not legally binding. There are companion bills in the state house and senate that would help bring Florida law into compliance with the international covenant, but neither is making progress through the legislative process at this time.
The UN Human Rights Committee’s findings echo a call made by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in February for Florida and other states to make their policies less restrictive.