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By Devin D. Coleman
Returning citizens in Florida face many challenges upon completion of their sentence. People, including returning citizens themselves, are often surprised to learn about the collateral consequences. When a verdict is rendered (whether it be through a plea agreement or trial in front of judge and jury), the defendant typically assumes that their debt to society will be paid in full upon completion of their sentence. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.
Many collateral consequences place devastating barriers to full integration into society, leaving some of Florida's most disenfranchised a front row seat to a life of rejection and access denied, as these citizens are continually turned down and shunned on the doorstep of each job and housing opportunity they seek. Even food access is extremely limited for returning citizens. Florida is one of only four states that disenfranchises returning citizens from civic participation, unless they are granted clemency from the Office of Executive Clemency. The process has impacted the lives of over 1.6 million returning citizens, as well as their families and communities. Changing this policy would benefit all of Florida.
The economic impact alone of enfranchising Florida's returning citizens would add approximately $365 million to Florida's economy. Couple this with the knowledge that restoring civil rights lowers recidivism, and it makes sense why so many people see this solution as a no-brainer. With this in mind, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, along with partner organizations (statewide and nationally), began working towards creating a Florida that operates from a space of restoration of returning citizens and their civil rights, versus everlasting punishment post-conviction.
Through these initiatives, the Say Yes to Second Chances Campaign was birthed, with the intent of restoring the voting rights of returning citizens in Florida. Subsequently, members collected over 1 million signatures in a matter of months to this end, proving voters in Florida believe in second chances. Once voters heard the stories of returning citizens and saw these were regular people with hopes, dreams, and true potential just like them, mindsets began to shift.
Through our work in communities organizing and building chapters across the state of Florida, we've found that there is no shortage of stories of citizens fully committed to their path of redemption. From veterans that served our country yet were denied safe housing and employment opportunities to support their families, to the youth that grew up in the system as a result of the school-to-prison pipeline—so many shoulders are burdened with the weight of the world, aspirations deferred and the American Dream denied.
But there is hope. We see it every day. This hope is fueled by the passion and sacrifices made by a resilient group of returning citizens with the support of organizations, clergy, and community leaders who believe in second chances. We hope you will join the movement to restore the voting rights of returning citizens.
Devin D. Coleman is an executive board member of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
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