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Ex-Felons In Florida Gain Right To Serve On Juries And Run For Public Office

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Florida, hundreds of thousands of felons who have completed their sentences will now be able to serve on juries and even run for public office. New rules adopted today by Florida's governor and Cabinet follow an amendment adopted in 2018 - an amendment that allows felons to vote. NPR's Greg Allen has more.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Florida's top officials agreed to automatically restore civil rights to felons who've completed their sentences. Outside the Capitol a little later, supporters celebrated.

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ALLEN: The main impact on today's action is that it allows felons - returning citizens, as they're sometimes called - to be on juries and run for office. Two years ago, Florida voters sent a strong message when they approved a constitutional amendment that overturned a Reconstruction-era law and gave felons back the right to vote. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, along with most Republicans, didn't support that effort. And afterwards, he helped push through a law that requires felons to first repay all court-ordered fines and fees. But today, DeSantis sided with the civil rights groups.

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RON DESANTIS: I believe that those who have had their voting rights restored under Amendment 4 - it makes sense to also restore the other civil rights.

ALLEN: Today's action was in many ways the result of work done for years by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. That's the group that put the amendment to restore voting rights on the ballot. A year ago, the group brought to the governor much of what was approved today. Deputy Director Neil Volz says a study done by the state parole commission helped make the case.

NEIL VOLZ: They found that people who had their civil rights restored were three times less likely to reoffend. So on one hand, that means transform lives. But there's also people in communities who are not going to be found victims of crime.

ALLEN: The vote marked a reversal in policies on restoring rights to felons put in place by Florida's previous Republican governor, Rick Scott. Scott, now one of Florida's U.S. senators, put new restrictions on restoring rights and imposed a several-year-long waiting period before felons could even apply.

Desmond Meade heads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

DESMOND MEADE: What we witnessed today was a giant step forward from previous policies that was implemented by Governor Rick Scott.

ALLEN: Meade says policies are changing in Florida because of the growing political clout of felons who can now finally express their opinions at the ballot box. He says more than 190,000 felons were registered to vote in November's election.

MEADE: Because of Amendment 4, elected officials throughout the state of Florida is forced now to really start paying attention to policies that impact people with felony convictions.

ALLEN: At today's Cabinet meeting, Meade was one of the items on the agenda. Through his work on felon rights and his personal story, he's become well known. After convictions for drugs and domestic violence, he remarried, rebuilt his life and graduated from law school. But because of his record, he's not been able to apply to the bar and practice law. DeSantis rejected a request by Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, to grant Meade a full pardon, citing concerns about his dishonorable discharge from the Army. Meade chalked it up to politics. Fried and DeSantis may square off in next year's gubernatorial election. On the upside, though, under a new policy, his civil rights will be restored, and he should be able to apply to the Florida bar.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.