Rights Restored? ...Not Quite

A short while ago, a friend asked me about restoration of rights in Florida. After being convicted of a non-violent felony and serving a period of incarceration, Florida law strips him of some of his most basic civil rights. Even after satisfying all the terms and conditions of his sentence, the State took away not only his right to vote, but also the right to hold public office, serve on a jury, and hold certain types of state occupational licenses. An ex-felon's civil rights are taken away permanently until and unless he or she successfully completes a lengthy clemency application process and is granted restoration of civil rights by the Governor and the Board of Executive Clemency.

In Florida, the Department of Corrections will typically assist ex-felons (except those convicted of certain severe crimes) in beginning this process upon their release from supervision. Governor Charlie Crist has been a strong supporter of the restoration of voting rights to ex-felons. Last year, he and the Clemency Board approved an automatic restoration of rights for offenders meeting certain criteria. Under the new clemency rules, automatic restoration of rights will grant ex-offenders voting rights, the right to serve on a jury, the right to apply for occupational licenses and the right to hold public office. Gun rights, however, will NOT be restored.

At first glance, the decision not to restore the rights afforded by the Second Amendment may appear perfectly reasonable and rational, and I don't wholly disagree. There's no question that violent offenders shouldn't have the same access to firearms that law abiding citizens do; but take into consideration the vast array of just what constitutes a felony in this day and age (i.e. driving with a suspended license), and there instantly becomes a large number of people who are very unreasonably being denied some of our most basic constitutional rights. A recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court -- District of Columbia v. Heller -- reaffirmed the individual's right to bear arms, and explicitly addressed self-defense concerns in its reasoning. Under current rules, an ex-felon's petition for restoration of the right to bear arms will not even be considered within eight years of that individual having fully paid his or her debt to society. It's preposterous to think that we as a society would ever force someone to bear witness against himself (Fifth Amendment) or deny someone accused of a crime the right to effective assistance of counsel (Sixth Amendment) simply because they had previously been convicted of a felony. The simple fact of the matter is that any law making it a crime (in fact, a felony!) to hire a lawyer would instantly be struck down. How, then, can we justify stripping an ex-felon of the right to defend himself in a fashion explicitly guaranteed to every individual by the Constitution? And what about one of our nation's founding principles -- no taxation without representation? If an ex-felon is stripped of his right to vote, shouldn't his responsibility to pay taxes go with it?!