Under the Florida Constitution, a convicted felon cannot vote unless that person's rights have been restored. Miami Herald file 2013
Under the Florida Constitution, a convicted felon cannot vote unless that person's rights have been restored. Miami Herald file 2013

Elections

Price tag for restricting felons' rights after prison put at $385 million a year

May 21, 2018 05:00 AM

TALLAHASSEE

Seven years after Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet voted to end the state policy that automatically restored the civil rights of nonviolent offenders after they complete their sentences, a price tag has emerged.

Florida lost an estimated $385 million a year in economic impact, spent millions on court and prison costs, had 3,500 more offenders return to prison, and lost the opportunity to create about 3,800 new jobs.

Those are just some of the conclusions of a new economic research report prepared by the Republican-leaning Washington Economics Group of Coral Gables for proponents of Amendment 4, the proposal on the November ballot that asks voters to allow the automatic restoration of civil rights for eligible felons who have served their sentences.

The report was commissioned by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national criminal justice reform organization that works with crime survivors, to show the economic impact of approving the amendment.

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But the findings show more than the economic impact of what could happen if voters approve it. They also estimate the cost of the policy that was fast-tracked into law by the governor and Cabinet a month after taking office in 2011, its impact on crime and its cost to taxpayers.

Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and then-Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater repealed the automatic restoration of rights that had been in place for four years and replaced it with a plan requiring a minimum five-year waiting period before offenders could start the application process to have their voting and civil rights restored.

The action reversed the policy approved by the Cabinet in 2007 at the urging of then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Now, the only way a convicted felon can regain his or her civil rights is to wait five years and apply for a review at the state Office of Executive Clemency, which has limited resources and can take years.

Under the Florida Constitution, a convicted felon cannot vote, serve on a jury, or hold public office until his or her civil rights have been restored. Some professions, like insurance, also restrict felons from obtaining a license unless they have had their rights restored. A 2011 law banned some state agencies from disqualifying some felons from obtaining permits or licenses, unless the offender remains on probation.

The proposed amendment would restore rights automatically, except for those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. To come up with a price tag for the policy, economists looked at the data from 2007 to 2011 and compared it with current data. They focused on the recidivism rate, the number of released felons who returned to prison after being released and projected the costs and the impact those felons would have on the economy if they went to work instead.

"The difference is quite significant,'' said Tony Villamil, who authored the study.

Villamil is a veteran economist who has served as both a top economic adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush and his father, President George H.W. Bush. When offenders can't get their rights restored, they often can't get good jobs and that "employment penalty" sends more of them into a life of crime, he said.

"Many of these folks feel marginalized,'' he said.

By contrast, research shows that felons who have their voting rights restored, "have a greater ability to become full members of Florida’s society and economy, leading to a reduced rate of recidivism,'' the report said.

Before 2007, the recidivism rate for all felons was 33 percent, according to a 2011 report by the Florida Clemency Board. After Crist's policy, the average two-year recidivism rate for felons who had their rights restored was 12. 4 percent, lower than the three-year average recidivism rate of all felons, which was 26.3 percent.

Under Crist, 155,315 offenders who were released got their rights restored. Under Scott, just 4,352 offenders have had their rights restored. Of those felons who have had their rights restored, less than 1 percent of them returned to crime and the average three-year recidivism rate for all felons in Florida in 2013 — the last year available — was 25.4 percent.

The governor's office disputes the claim that recividism rates dropped when more felons had rights restored. It argues the recidivism rate has been dropping in recent years in spite of the restrictive approach to rights restoration. Scott's office notes that the three-year recidivism rate has decreased from 30.5 percent for inmates released in 2007, the first year of Crist's policy, to 25.2 percent for inmates released in 2013, which is the latest data available and includes the last year of Crist's policy.

"Florida remains one of the safest states in the nation,'' said Scott spokesman, McKinley Lewis. "The concept that Florida’s economy is not booming and that clemency guidelines have reduced tax revenue or economic growth is absolutely false."

Scott's policy was struck down by a federal court in February after being challenged by the Fair Elections Legal Network. U.S. District Judge Mark Warner ruled that the state’s system is arbitrary because the state has unfettered discretion in restoring voting and civil rights. He ordered the state to develop a new method of deciding when and how convicted felons can regain their voting rights, but Scott and Bondi are appealing the ruling.

Of the 1.5 million Floridians who have been stripped of their civil rights, only 30,000 have applied to the Florida Commission on Offender Review to have their rights restored.

When Scott and that Cabinet pursued the measure with limited discussion, they didn't discuss what it would cost Florida taxpayers. They didn't address how much crime would increase, and they didn't consider what it would do to the state's employment rolls.

"I believe if you are convicted of a felony, there should be an appropriate waiting time before you have your rights restored, and I firmly believe that someone should have to ask," Bondi said at the time.

The Washington Economics Group estimates that the passing of Amendment 4 would result in $385 million in annual economic benefits to Florida taxpayers from two sources: reduced court and prison costs through a decline in recidivism, and increased earning power through improved employment opportunities.

The report calculated the impact on the prison system and the courts using existing data on offenders and recidivism rates. It calculated the economic impact of their labor patterns on Florida using a model that considers the link between the demand one industry has on other industries. The report cites research that shows that felons earn less than average wages, and felons who do not have their voting rights restored earn 12 percent less than that.

"With higher incomes, eligible felons would be able to afford living in less-disadvantaged areas, which is associated with better employment outcomes after release and less recidivism,'' the report states. It estimates that employed eligible felons who had their rights restored would see an $88 million direct increase in income.

That will ripple through the rest of the Florida economy, the economists said, "ultimately benefiting employment in many industries and Household Income for Florida residents, not just for the eligible ex-felon population."

Economic impact of restoring felons rights

The Washington Economics Group estimates that if Florida approves Amendment 4, the state will see the following economic impact:

  • $365 million in total economic impact each year
  • $223 million less in annual prison and court costs
  • $143 million in additional annual income for felons eligible to have rights restored
  • 3,800 more jobs developed — from knowledge-based jobs to manufacturing industries
  • $234 million in additional gross domestic product
  • $50 million in additional federal, state and local tax revenue
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas