Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried joined a handful of state lawmakers and a representative of the NAACP Wednesday to discuss the “unaddressed” issues of civil rights and voting in Florida.
From criminal justice reform and felony voting rights, to clemency and predatory lending, the group took issue with Gov. Ron DeSantis and his lack of engagement on civil rights issues.
Marsha Ellison, the NAACP’s Civic Engagement Chair for the Florida State Conference, laid blame at the Governor’s feet.
“History tells us that felony disenfranchisement 115 years ago was strictly born out of racism,” Ellison said. “This administration apparently intends to let the system remain. I can see how that would work for him, but quite frankly it doesn’t work for us in the black community. Once you paid your debt to society, you deserve and should be restored to first class citizenship.
Ellison added that the NAACP finds the current administration’s efforts “atrocious and quite frankly racist.”
Fried voiced frustrations of her own and called for a political and social reprioritization in Florida.
“Its not about building more jails, it’s trying to prevent people from going to jail and stopping the criminal cycle that’s going from the communities right into the jail system,” Fried said.
Fried also called on DeSantis to listen to the orchestra of those calling for clemency reform.
“Since taking office I’ve called for an overhaul of clemency rules — rules which disproportionately affect Black people, and were designed to suppress votes and disenfranchise those who paid their debt to society,” she said. “The Governor can change the rules, but he won’t entertain the conversation. He just cancelled next week’s Cabinet and Clemency meetings — the first Clemency meeting since last year, while thousands are still waiting for rights restoration.”
The group also pushed for the clemency board to be allowed to restore felons’ rights freely.
“The efforts of this state show that at large there is an anti-clemency and therefore anti-merciful campaign being run against 1.7 million returning citizens and 64% of voters who in 2018 voted in favor of Amendment Four,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Hillsborough County. “So here we are now in 2020 witnessing consistent attempts to carryout and maintain a system of oppression that is supposed to be bedrock of restoring civil and voting rights to returning citizens.”
Driskell too laid blame on the Governor.
“The Governor, in varied and calculated ways, has delayed administering the justice that Florida’s clemency system is designed to provide,” Driskell said. “These delays have deepened the backlog of clemency applicants and returning citizens who have already been deemed eligible for clemency. With elections coming up this summer and fall, now is the time to get the clemency process working again. We also have watched as Governor DeSantis announced his plan to file an appeal in light of a federal ruling that returning citizens can vote, despite owing fines and fees. Both he and Attorney General Ashley Moody are on the wrong side of history with respect to this effort.”
Rep. Bobby Dubose of Fort Lauderdale echoed the group’s call on the Governor.
“Florida’s clemency system of restoring voting and civil rights has long been broken, disenfranchising 1.7 million ex-felons — and it’s a system that disproportionately punishes Black Floridians,” Dubose said. “This is a fact that Governor DeSantis must recognize, and come to the table to join the conversation, change the rules, and help us correct this injustice.”