The state of Florida is among the handful of states that don’t automatically restore civil rights to nonviolent felony offenders after they pay their debts to society. Activists here are trying to change the law for “returning citizens” by amending the Florida Constitution. Devin Coleman of Jacksonville and his fellow rights-restoration advocates tell us why we should care.
THE PRISONER, THE POET
Thirty-nine-year-old Devin Coleman is a poet, publisher, father, breadwinner and lay minister to prisoners. He’s also an ex-felon.
It takes a while for Coleman to warm up to our conversation, and even longer for me to see him smile. His grin belies a much younger spirit, a bit of the happy-go-lucky college student—before his incarceration for hurting someone in a fight at a party that got out of hand, before his violation of parole.
“I learned I have to hold myself accountable for my actions and reactions,” he tells me at our table inside Einstein Bros. Bagels. “That’s when I started my path to personal freedom. I just had to learn how to maneuver in society, not to put myself in certain positions.”
Voting rights are included in Coleman’s advocacy work now, but when he was released from prison, he had other priorities.
“The priority was being able to provide for myself and to have somewhere to stay where I was safe. Those were the main priorities for me.” A felony conviction impeded him on both fronts.
He found that while society generally expected him to get his life back together, individuals weren’t actually willing to give him the opportunity to do it.
“I’d hear people say—and it hurt a lot—they said, ‘You need to let your pride down and go apply at Burger King.’ I did, and they turned me down. Yeah, I know I need to get a job, but tell me how to get a job with a felony on your application regardless of your qualifications.”
It’s the kind of discouragement that can lead a person to believe he’s never going to get a fair shot, so why should he bother with any of society’s rules at all?
“I was there,” Coleman says, describing the spiritual battle he faced during his second period of incarceration. Poems from his book, From Prisoner to Poet, delve into his battles with feelings that he was “better off dead.”
“It was a tipping point for me—it all boiled down to God opening my eyes to certain things. Because of my incarceration, I had time to assess who I was. The second time I was in prison, I knew I never wanted to come back. I had to figure out what it would take—what person I had to grow into—in order to not go back in there anymore.
“So I began to research who I was, and who my grandfathers were and the women they listened to. When people in my family spoke of my grandfathers, they spoke of them as being great men. I couldn’t be the one to diminish the light attached to the family name.
“If there’s rejection, there’s a period of what you go through emotionally,” Coleman says, “but I can’t afford to lie down. I’ve got to progress … . I’ve got my nephews looking at me, my daughter looking at me, and I have to show them what I’m going to do.
“What I had to do was prove to myself I could be a better person, and once I did that, other people came into my life … I surrounded myself with solutions-oriented people. Then the responsibility shifted and I was called to action.”
Devin Coleman now wants to be a source of inspiration for incarcerated people, and he wants to use his story to elevate the cause of voting rights restoration. His message to ex-offenders is one of accountability.
“Decisions have consequences.”
FLORIDA’S CLEMENCY BACKLOG
In Florida, one of the consequences of committing a felony—and of being convicted—is losing all civil rights, unless the offender is granted clemency. Those rights include serving on a jury, obtaining a state occupational or professional license, running for office, and voting. Felony convictions also bar residency under certain homeowner association rules, as well as in government-subsidized housing.
Florida, Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia are the only four states that prohibit across-the-board all felony ex-offenders who’ve served their sentences from voting without applying for clemency. (Virginia’s governor has issued an executive order to help restore ex-offender rights.) In Florida, ex-felons are required to wait five or seven years (depending on the seriousness of the offense) after sentence completion, including probation or parole, to apply to the state Clemency Board. The Florida Times Union reports the rights-restoration process takes an average of 9.2 years to complete in our state—for the tiny minority of cases actually scheduled for hearings.
According to recent testimony before the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission, the Clemency Board, comprising Gov. Rick Scott and three cabinet members, schedules only 300 cases for hearing each year, out of 6,000 applications. About 10,000 applications remain perpetually backlogged.
Since Gov. Scott’s inauguration in 2011, fewer than 2,500 ex-felony offenders have had their rights restored, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Prior to 2011, then-Governor Charlie Crist worked with state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink to streamline the clemency process. During Crist’s four-year term, the Clemency Board restored civil rights for 155,315 Floridians. His predecessor, Jeb Bush, restored rights to slightly fewer than half that total, 75,000, during his eight-year term.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, 1.6 million former felony offenders are currently prohibited from voting in Florida.
During Gov. Scott’s Nov. 14 visit to Jacksonville, Folio Weekly asked him about his extremely low clemency numbers, relative to his predecessors’ tallies.
“Well, we go through … you know, we, I follow the law of the land. My expectation is anybody that’s committed felonies, they have a time to show that they’re going to become part of society again and that’s why we go through the process of the clemency board.”
The affirmative duty for an ex-offender to prove one’s fitness for society, after repaying all debts to society, seems superfluous in a system that will put him or her back in prison anyway for violating any more of society’s rules.
Devin Coleman contends that treating ex-offenders differently from other citizens impedes the very process of becoming part of society again.
“I’ve had people say I was a second-class citizen—but I don’t believe it and I don’t feel that way. I’m a man and I take pride in my ability to provide for my family and to clear a path for those who come after me.”
FW asked Gov. Scott if he would support legislation that automatically restored civil rights to those who have served their sentences. “There’s about 250 bills a year that get passed through the House and the Senate; when those get passed, I review them,” he said.
On Dec. 6, Rep. Cord Byrd, a Republican from Neptune Beach, is expected to announce a proposed House bill designed to relieve Florida’s clemency backlog by creating a judicial pathway for rights restoration. Byrd’s legislation, if passed, would require felony ex-offenders to notify the state attorney’s office of their intent to petition the convicting judge for rights restoration, and would grant the state the opportunity to oppose the petition. In a Nov. 29 email to his supporters, Byrd mentions “veterans, youthful offenders and victims of sex trafficking” as individuals who get caught in the criminal justice system and are thereby prevented from becoming “complete members of their communities” even after serving their sentences, until their civil rights are restored.
PROPOSED CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT
“They [ex-offenders] made mistakes when they were younger,” says Samir Gupte, Northeast Florida Regional Coordinator for the ACLU.
“They get their lives back on track and we want to help them to fully realize their potential as U.S. citizens, by being able to vote, being able to serve on jury, sit on jury, get a state license, run for office—all the things that come with full citizenship.”
Currently, there are two efforts to change how ex-offenders re-obtain their civil rights in Florida: a proposal to the Constitutional Revision Commission, and a voter-petition drive.
In late October, the Florida Constitutional Revision Committee discussed placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot. If approved by 60 percent of voters, it would automatically restore civil rights to nonviolent felony offenders once they’ve completed their sentences, including parole and probation. Twenty-two of the Florida CRC’s 37 commissioners would have to agree to place the item on the ballot.
Among those CRC commissioners is former Florida Bar President Hank Coxe, a pre-eminent Jacksonville criminal defense attorney, who chairs the CRC’s Elections & Ethics Committee. Coxe told FW that he considers the right to vote as “equal to the greatest right we have.”
Asked if citizens should be worried about the variation in policy regarding rights restoration from one governor to the next, Coxe said, “Personalities and politics are subjective. When subjective standards come into play, then you’re diminishing the right to vote. Ought there be a standard by which to determine this question?”
While Coxe declined to say whether he’d vote to place the rights restoration issue on the ballot, he did say, “I think the people should decide which crimes may not be eligible for automatic restoration of voting rights.”
The CRC has until May 2018 to submit its final recommendations on proposed constitutional amendments. Meanwhile, the CRC has publicized a list of 103 proposals on which they’ll vote, including two that address rights restoration for ex-offenders. One proposal mirrors the language in the ballot initiative petition (see below); the other adds 11 violent felonies prohibiting automatic rights restoration, plus a blanket prohibition for felony violence or threats of violence against individuals.
Meanwhile, Floridians for a Fair Democracy is pushing its #SayYesToSecondChances campaign to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot by voter petition. According to the most recently available monthly state report, Floridians for a Fair Democracy has spent $2.7 million of the $2.9 million it has raised since the political campaign committee formed in 2014. The campaign receives funding from the ACLU. The Florida Supreme Court has already unanimously authorized the proposed Amendment’s language.
The text of the amendment reads, in part, “any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment would not apply to convicted murderers or convicted felony sex-offenders, who would still have to apply for clemency to have their rights restored.
The movements to amend the state constitution are not without opposition. Richard Harrison, a Tampa attorney, has established the 501(c)(4) educational organization “Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy.” In a letter to the editor of the Tampa Bay Times , he argued that the proposed amendment would treat all non-murder and non-sexual felonies the same, and would usurp the evaluative process that considers clemency applications on a case-by-case basis.
“… [b]lanket restoration of voting rights to nearly all felons,” Harrison wrote, “without considering the circumstances of each case, is just bad policy.” State records for Harrison’s organization lack financial reporting, but the group does have a website and Facebook page. While Harrison included some figures on recidivism in his letter, he omitted one that rights restoration advocates point to: ex-offenders whose civil rights were restored in 2009 and 2010 re-offended 11 percent of the time, compared with a 33 percent overall recidivism rate for all ex-offenders during the preceding nine years.
THE CRIME AND THE TIME
“I left college to go to prison,” Devin Coleman tells me. The Ed White High School graduate and former Florida A&M University student was arrested when he was 21 years old, at a house party where a fight broke out, and where a VCR, a beeper and some CDs were reported as missing. Coleman was quick to take responsibility for injuring another person—in hindsight, too quick.
“It was my ignorance of the criminal justice system,” he says, refusing to blame the overworked public defender for the outcome. He regrets his decision to not hire a private attorney, the one who told him he could probably get the charges knocked down to misdemeanors. Instead, Coleman ended up pleading to two felonies, and spent two-and-a-half years locked up. The person he injured recovered completely, albeit with medical bills tallying less than $1,000—including the $400 ambulance ride.
“I violated somebody,” he says. “For that I was wrong.”
Coleman served two sentences totaling about four years—the first for the original crimes, the second for violating parole.
“The correctional officers and other individuals inside wondered why I was there.” He remembers their words. “‘This dude ain’t supposed to be here.’ Even the transporter shook his head.”
After finishing the last few months of his first, two-and-a-half-year sentence in a work camp in Gainesville, the young man was released. He tried to start over again, and looked forward to attending the University of North Florida, which accepted him conditioned on his parole completion. Instead, Coleman got arrested for a misdemeanor.
It was 2005, the height of law-and-order politics, the zero-tolerance years, when he was incarcerated again.
“Had I not been on [parole], I’d have spent the night in jail and been out the next morning. My probation officer advocated for me.
“My mistake cost me more because of policy and politics,” he says of the system, which incarcerates disproportionate numbers of minorities, particularly black men like him. “But I can’t afford to get caught up in all that. I’m a single dad, raising a daughter.” His work in rights restoration, he says, is for her future. “My daughter is growing up. I’ve got to change it.”
During that second stint in Gulf Correctional Institute, Devin Coleman himself grew up.
“PICK UP A BOOK.”
Coleman recalls his time at GCI. “I’m mad. I’m supposed to be in college. I’d say, ‘Y’all took me away from college.’”
One day, a white correctional officer got tired of hearing it. “Pick up a book,” the CO said. “Pick up and read a book.”
“That opened my mind,” says Coleman, adding that he wishes he could remember the CO’s name so he could send him a thank-you note. Coleman read everything he could get his hands on: novels by John Grisham, James Patterson, Jackie Collins and K’wan. Also on his reading list were Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell; Farrah Gray’s Reallionaire and the Rich Dad, Poor Dad series by Robert T. Kiyosaki. He also picked up a book on publishing.
“When I felt like people couldn’t hear what I was saying,” he says, “I realized I could write.” Some time after he started writing, Coleman received what he calls his “nomination”—his calling from God.
“My grandmother never got to see me here,” he says, shaking his head in regret. She died while he was still in prison, sending him into an emotional tailspin.
“I was on a seesaw,” he says. “Every day was a challenge.”
Someone in prison suggested that he talk to a mutual acquaintance, another prisoner. “His grandma had just passed, and he was on his own. He had no one else in the world.”
Coleman didn’t know what to say to him.
“I gave him the poems I wrote,” he says. “We sat on my bunk, shedding tears. He was. I was … . Then I saw the power of being able to communicate things we want to bottle up.”
There on bunk No. A147 Single at Gulf Correctional Institute, Devin Coleman realized the power of the written word, and the power of human connection that words provide. In poems, he could speak the unspeakable, and beat down his demons. His faith grew, as did his sense of purpose in the world.
“It forced me to think outside myself,” he says. His book, Prisoner to Poet: Thoughts of an Incarcerated Soul, was born. An entire section of the book is dedicated to his grandmother.
• • •
We break for a minute, stretch our legs, and get another cup of coffee. As I head to the row of urns to refill my cup, Coleman asks, “Do we have to pay again?”
I stop dead in my tracks. While I can take for granted that Einstein’s allows free refills, such assumptions are a luxury Coleman doesn’t have.
“Can we get some more?” I ask the young woman at the counter, holding up my cup.
“Oh, yeah, refills are free,” she says, nodding. Only then would Coleman get more coffee.
THE PETITION DRIVE
Ex-offender and law school graduate Desmond Meade is president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, state director of the Live Free campaign, and chairman of Floridians for a Fair Democracy. Meade, who hails from Miami, has dedicated much of his life to fighting for criminal justice reform. He’s been featured in numerous national articles and has appeared on several TV outlets, including MSNBC with Joy Ann Reid.
Meade visited Florida Coastal School of Law in October to speak about the petition to put the rights-restoration amendment on the November 2018 ballot.
On Nov. 1, Meade told Florida Politics that the movement has gathered more than 900,000 petitions to place the Voter Restoration Amendment on the November 2018 ballot. As of this writing, only 442,969 of those signatures have been reported as “verified” on the state website.
To get a citizen-driven initiative on the ballot, organizers must obtain 766,200 verified signatures from across Florida’s 27 Congressional districts, following proportionality requirements for each district. Meade contends the ballot item will have more than 1 million signatures by year’s end.
“We know the fallout rate is about 30 percent,” said Gupte of the number of petitions that won’t be verifiable. Gupte says that the people he encounters during petition drives fall into three categories: those in favor who sign immediately, those who flatly oppose it, and those who are undecided.
“[T]here’s this mash in the middle who don’t know that people who have paid their debt to society can’t vote,” Gupte says. “We convert more of those in the middle than we don’t. When we have a chance to talk cogently about the issue, we find we resonate with them.”
“WHEN MY WIFE RAN FOR OFFICE … I COULDN’T EVEN VOTE FOR HER.”
Meade described himself to his audience at Florida Coastal as a “returning citizen,” formerly homeless, and a former drug addict. He served time in Florida’s prison system for possessing a firearm as a felon, which related back to previous cocaine possession charges.
Meade acknowledges what he did was wrong—that it went against everything he was taught in his family while he was growing up. As for the manner in which he turned around his life, he said, “It’s a story of overcoming obstacles.”
After completing a rigorous drug rehabilitation program in Miami, Meade earned his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, finishing in 2010. He enrolled at Florida International University College of Law shortly thereafter, graduating in May 2013.
“I stand here as a living testimony … that no matter where you are in life, given the opportunity and having the dedication, the commitment, that you can overcome anything.”
He paused to let the audience applaud. It’s hard not to be moved by both his story and his gift for telling it.
“But, at the end of the day, when I graduated law school,” Meade said, “I could not sit for The Florida Bar. And the reason I couldn’t sit for The Florida Bar, unfortunately, is because I am counted as one of 1.6 million people in the state of Florida who have permanently lost their civil rights because of a prior felony conviction.
“There are other collateral consequences associated with this thing as well,” he told the crowd. “I have a wife and five kids. Because my civil rights have not been restored, I also face restrictions in housing. There are a lot of HOAs that will prevent me from renting or owning a house until my civil rights are restored. And so I’m prevented from buying safe and affordable housing for my family.
“[L]ast but not least, I can’t vote. The hardest time of really realizing that was last election cycle, when my wife ran for office to be state representative, in the Florida House, and I couldn’t even vote for her.”
Sheena Meade lost the race for Florida House District 46 in the 2016 Democratic primary.
Gupte says the right to vote is one of the dignities that give returning citizens a bigger stake in our society which, in turn, encourages them to remain law-abiding citizens.
“Giving ex-offenders back their citizenship will make us a safer society, and it’s the right thing to do,” Gupte explained. “The recidivism rate for ex-offenders who have had their voting rights restored is lower—so there’s less of a chance they’ll go back to prison.”
Gupte contends that restoring ex-felons to full citizenship saves money that society would otherwise spend in the criminal justice and prison systems.
“It makes communities safer, and it costs less.”
2011 Parole Commission report may confirm Gupte’s assertion: The recidivism rate for ex-offenders overall, from 2000 to 2008, was 33 percent. But among those who had their rights restored in 2009 and 2010, only 11 percent of individuals reoffended and were returned to state custody by May 2011.
VOTER SUPPRESSION, RACE AND PARTISANSHIP
Voter suppression is a touchy subject in Florida, and for good reason. During the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Jacksonville’s Supervisor of Elections threw out 26,000 over-marked “butterfly” ballots. Nine thousand of those discarded ballots had been cast in precincts that comprised 98 percent African-American voters.
Voting rights became a hot-button racial issue again in 2012, when Gov. Scott shortened the early voting period in Florida, ending it on the Saturday before Election Day instead of Sunday.
Early voting, including “Souls to the Polls” Sundays, is generally considered beneficial to Democrats, who depend on strong African-American turnout for wins. Many media accounts note the felony-conviction prohibition against voting was added to the constitution in 1868, during Reconstruction, and they characterize it as a vestige of Jim Crow, which further drives the racial narrative surrounding the rights restoration issue.
It’s well-established that minorities are disproportionately subject to police encounters due to the geography of structural inequality. A recent landmark investigation, “Bias on the Bench,” has also revealed deep racial biases in sentencing in Florida.
Ex-offender disenfranchisement affects African Americans disproportionately; the Brennan Center reports one-third of disenfranchised voters in Florida are African American, while Florida’s population comprises only 16 percent African Americans.
Meade, however, cautions the public against thinking about felony voter rights restoration in racial or partisan terms. The felony prohibition against voting affects far more white people in Florida. If 33 percent of our disenfranchised citizens, or 528,000 of 1.6 million, are black, then 67 percent, i.e., twice as many, or 1,072,000, are not black. Thus, the issue affects twice as many non-black people as black people in our state.
Meade challenges our racial and partisan preconceptions about ex-offenders. “Are we saying only Democrats commit crimes?” He contends that rights restoration decisions should never involve an individual’s race or political affiliation.
Meade also cautions against the typical mental image of a felon, the Willie Horton stereotype of scary black men, mostly murderers or violent criminals. After all, tampering with vehicle odometers, releasing helium balloons or disturbing sea turtle nests, he reminds us, are just a few of the odd ways anyone can become a felony offender in Florida.
One thing’s for sure: The policies that govern our criminal justice system aren’t likely to change without input by those who have been personally affected by that system, and those individuals—former felons—need rights restoration in order to make their voices heard.
Devin Coleman’s return to citizenship began 11 years ago.
“It’s 2017, and I’m still fighting the state in some aspects. People treat me different,” he says. Asked if he’s started the process toward rights restoration, he says, “I want to.”
Coleman declined to identify his current employer for the purposes of this article. After his college plans were interrupted once again by his parole violation, he eventually finished his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration at Edward Waters College, specializing in organizational management. He also started a publishing company, Sister & Sampson Publishing, named in homage to his grandmother.
“[My conviction] affected my family. It affected my community. It affected my ability to directly affect others. I had people who didn’t accept me.
“That’s irregardless of the things you’ve done to change your life. It’s who you were, not who you are.”
Gupte believes that faith brings many people to support the cause of felony rights restoration in Florida. “Christians, and we have a lot in this state, believe in second chances.”
Gupte shares a belief in God, and sees beauty in all religions, but isn’t driven by spirituality to restore ex-offender voting rights.
“It’s more driven by fairness and justice,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense that someone has paid their debt to society and we still make them pay.”
Meade, by contrast, considers “second chances” as inherent to the Christian concept of “grace.” He quotes Jesus of Nazareth’s words to the Penitent Thief, one of the criminals with whom He was crucified: “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.”
Meade puts the emphasis on “today” when he quotes the Bible, emphasizing that while getting clemency in Florida is a long shot that takes years, Jesus forgave instantly. And he notes Jesus never asked the condemned man what crime he had committed.
Coleman credits his faith with bringing him forward during his past 11 years of honorable, law-abiding work and family life.
“The whole Bible is about being led by the Lord,” Coleman says. “Some of the figures in the Bible—would they be allowed to grow in this day and age? Not into perfection, but progression?”
“I pray,” he says. “I listen to spiritual messages every day. I have a couple people who hold me accountable, and I hold them accountable.”
To those who would reject him from full citizenship in society, he says, “Don’t judge the sentence, judge the body of work.”
He leans forward in his chair, shifting from the spiritual to the pragmatic.
“The pool of people with nothing on their back—it’s getting smaller and smaller,” he says, referring to the diminishing number of people who have never had a brush with the law. Most people in prison, he adds, will come home eventually. “Let’s hope we have a means in place so they can be fully functioning in society.”
Devin Coleman compares a felony conviction’s affect on a family to a devastating hurricane.
“Their storms affect other people like Irma affected Jacksonville. After Irma, everybody pitched in, everyone helped. And we look at the lessons and figure out how to better prepare.”
“When we talk about post-incarceration, we understand that we are a nation built on second chances,” he says.
Claire Goforth contributed to this article.