Rouson pulls restoration of rights proposal

Saying he’s been fighting to help felons have their rights restored “before it became popular,” state Sen. Darryl Rouson yanked a proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights for felons, except for those convicted of violent crimes.

Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who serves on the Constitution Revision Commission, told a commission panel Wednesday he wanted to keep his proposal alive to give voters a choice in November.

A citizen-backed initiative, the “Voting Restoration Amendment,” will go before voters as Amendment 4 in November. The proposal would automatically restore voting rights of felons who’ve completed their sentences, have fulfilled parole or probation requirements and paid restitution. Murderers and sex offenders would not be included.

Rouson’s proposal (P 21) would have gone further, and excluded from the automatic rights restoration process felons who’ve been convicted of violent crimes.

“I worried that there would be opponents gathering steam to oppose this … so I intended to keep this alive so that the voters would have a choice,” Rouson, a lawyer, told the commission’s Declaration of Rights Committee Wednesday after telling the panel he intended to withdraw the proposal.

Rouson’s plan was geared toward “those who would have some anxiety or some angst about automatic restoration for certain violent offenders,” he said.

“That’s what this was. It was not a pay-off to me to stop a citizen-led initiative. So it hurts me to some extent that I’m withdrawing this. But I pray that in doing so we make it clear that redemption’s time has come, that we must pass the amendment that’s been put on by the citizens and approved by the Supreme Court,” he said.

The research doesn’t show any difference between restoring rights for violent and non-violent felons, according to Mark Schlakman, a senior program director at Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Schlakman told the panel Wednesday that research does show a reduction in recidivism among felons who have had their rights restored.

But, he said, it was essential too “underscore that there is no underlying cause to any restrictions.” Instead, the restrictions regarding murder and sex offenses came about “as a result of polling, to try to position it (the amendment) to have a better chance of passage.”

Rouson told The News Service of Florida he believes voters may want “a period of redemption” before rights are restored to felons who’ve committed certain types of violent crimes. He wanted to give voters the opportunity to choose between his amendment and the citizen-backed proposal which made it onto the ballot.

“The goal is full restoration for everybody who has made a mistake and who has redeemed themselves, rehabilitated themselves and reentered society. We want them to be able to participate. I believe that the voters deserve this choice, but I don’t want to be an impediment or confuse people, nor do I want to be blamed if it goes down in flames,” he said.