By now, you have probably heard of Florida’s Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment placed on Florida’s referendum ballot to restore civil rights for “returning citizens” or individuals who have had various interactions with the criminal justice system and lost their civil rights due to certain felony convictions.
There are many terms to describe people who have had that experience: “felons,” “convicts,” “criminals,” and other terms are popular.
But labels have power, and with them come connotations of good versus bad, worthy versus unworthy, desirable versus undesirable.
That is one of the many lessons that come out of Desmond Meade‘s semi-autobiographical work “Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens.” The book documents his journey from a homeless drug addict to a lawyer and advocate for voting rights while discussing the community and coalition work that made Amendment 4 a successful ballot initiative to amend the Florida constitution.
At its outset, we come face to face with Meade at his lowest point in life. Recently released from prison, homeless, hopeless, and staring at train tracks, he wonders if he should lay his life down right then and there. We follow his journey to turn his life around, for good, from that very moment.
As someone who lost his civil rights through a felony conviction, he has been a fearless advocate for that work. He attributes his message of love, forgiveness, and second chances to the campaign’s success in passing Amendment 4.
Meade struggled as a drug addict and pled to what he thought were minor offenses so that he could be sentenced to “time served” and return to the street and drugs.
At the time, in the fog of his addiction and with a desire to stay out of prison, he did not realize the impact these plea deals would have on sentencing for later arrests and convictions.
His last stint in prison came from a “felon in possession” charge. These charges rely on the law that someone previously convicted of a felony loses his right to possess a firearm. Thus, it is a felony punishable by prison time merely to possess a gun as a felon.
Well, an unfortunate incident while visiting a friend, who happened to have a firearm in his home, led to Meade’s last conviction.
As a veteran of the armed forces and a person trained in the use and aware of the dangers of guns, Meade makes it clear that he understood the seriousness and danger of firearms. Thus, he never owned or possessed a gun outside of the military.
Ironically, it still led to his downfall. Due to testimony of law enforcement that Meade was seen holding the gun in his hand, and his friend naming him as the “owner” of the gun, he was charged and convicted. Both assertions, according to Meade, were completely false.
I found it interesting that Meade addresses this grave injustice in a very straightforward manner; he neither dwells on it nor attacks his friend or the law enforcement officers despite their blatant misrepresentations. He merely states his story and focuses on what he did afterward to change his life. Although he was not guilty of that specific crime, he knew he had committed others due to his addiction.
He also had the guilt of the harm he caused to his family and community and the grief from the death of his mother, all of which contributed to his sense of desolation that led to that moment.
So many individuals find themselves in these situations — convicted of crimes they did not commit, sentenced to harsh sentences because of prior nonviolent felony convictions, and some simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those individuals, once convicted, lose their civil rights. Even after serving their time, they have to jump through enormous hoops to restore their rights.
Before Amendment 4, a person would lose those rights permanently unless pardoned by the Governor, which was and still is a rare event. Meade himself was denied a pardon even after all his work Amendment 4. Florida law is notoriously strict, listing several first-time nonviolent crimes as felonies. It also had the distinction of being one of the few states that permanently denied civil rights upon felony convictions.
As the book demonstrates, these conditions led to Meade becoming passionate about restoring civil rights and ultimately becoming the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Along with his partner Sheena Meade, whom he credits tremendously with modernizing and streamlining the organization, he has made the FRRC a national powerhouse, winning the recognition of celebrities like John Legend and national political figures like Stacey Abrams.
Meade is now the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, and a graduate of Florida International University College of Law. Despite these many credentials, Meade was previously unable to apply for admission to the Florida Bar, even though he obtained his juris doctor degree. He recently applied for a pardon from the Florida Governor and was denied.
Even as a veteran, even as a recovering drug addict, even with all the redemptive work he has done personally and for others, he was twice denied a full pardon by the Governor. Eventually, through the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, he would have several of his rights restored, which allows him to apply to The Florida Bar, run for office, and obtain a mortgage, among other things.
Let My People Vote is an inspiration to anyone playing the long game of civil rights issues. To get to this point, Meade had to overcome a lack of funding and support, several setbacks, and attacks from all kinds of people.
And the fight is not over, even after Amendment 4 passed with an overwhelming vote in its favor (from both sides of the political aisle)- the Florida Legislature enacted a statute defining a returning citizen’s completion of a felony sentence to include resolution of fines and fees associated with the conviction.
The statute was challenged as unconstitutional but was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
FRRC now has the Fines and Fees Project to continue assisting returning citizens with restoring their civil rights.
What’s not in the book are the stories of the 1.4 million people who now qualify for a restoration of their civil rights because of Amendment 4.
The book could not possibly touch on all of their stories. However, he does share the stories of a few individuals who stand out in his mind over has several years’ work; there is certainly room for a second book that documents the efforts to make Amendment 4 a reality for all who qualify and for the continued fight for civil rights and access to justice for all.
Desmond and his wife and five children live in Florida. Connect with him @desmondmeade.
Joseline Jean-Louis Hardrick is an associate professor at WMU-Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She teaches Criminal Law and Constitutional Law and assists graduates with bar preparation. She is the founder and director of Diversity Access Pipeline. Inc. This nonprofit organization runs the Journey to Esquire® Scholarship & Leadership Program, blog, and podcast to promote diversity and create access for law students. She is the author of Finding Joy in the Journey to Esquire A Guide to RENEWAL for Lawyers and Law students and Bar Exam BEAST MODE — Maximize Your Mindset to Beat the Bar! and several children books celebrating diversity and encouraging mindfulness in children.