It took 33 years, but Gilberto Hernandez of Miami finally feels like an American citizen again. He can vote. Hernandez was one of the few fortunate ones Wednesday as Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet sat in judgment of four dozen people seeking to restore their civil rights, decades after they ran afoul of the law and weeks before what could be the most important election of their lifetimes. Hernandez, walking with a cane, expressed remorse for his past and pleaded for the right to full citizenship while he still has the chance. He has Parkinson’s disease and will turn 65 next month. “For 33 years, I’ve been waiting for this day, to try to bring back my civil rights,” Hernandez testified. “I felt that I was less than an American because my rights were all taken away. And I felt very bad.” Hernandez is one of 1.5 million disenfranchised felons in Florida, more than any other state, according to a study by the Sentencing Project. Florida revokes civil rights of convicted felons for life, including the right to vote, serve on a jury or run for public office.
Under rules championed by Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, they must wait five years after leaving prison before they can request restoration of civil rights, a process that sometimes takes decades to resolve.
Hernandez was found guilty of dealing in stolen merchandise in an office supply business in the 1980s. He served less than two years in prison. After his release, he got a master’s degree in political science at FIU. The Florida Commission on Offender Review recommended that his rights be restored.
The long, slow process culminates at a hearing, on statewide TV in Tallahassee, before Scott and the three Cabinet members, who meet every three months as the Board of Clemency. A clemency meeting usually has fewer than 100 cases, and the state had a backlog of 10,588 civil rights cases as of Sept 1. Four dozen civil rights cases were considered Wednesday. Fewer than half were approved. Some lost for various reasons. Other cases were postponed.