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The Florida Department of Corrections must provide inmates being released from custody with the forms they need to apply for restoration of their civil rights and, upon request, offer assistance in completing them, the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ruled. In August 2002, Leon Circuit Judge P. Kevin Davey refused to require the DOC to provide the forms or assistance. He approved a settlement between the black legislative caucus and the DOC requiring the department to send forms to inmates released between 1996 and 2000, a period when the DOC had severe computer problems. On Wednesday, the 1st DCA unanimously overruled the judge. “The trial court ruled that mandamus was not appropriate because the department’s statutory obligations are discretionary, rather than ministerial,” Judge Ricky Polston wrote for the court in Florida Caucus of Black State Legislators Inc., et al. v. Crosby. “Because the Legislature chose to use the word ‘shall’ throughout section 944.293, the department’s obligations are not discretionary.” Section 944.293 of Florida law addresses a convicted felon’s rights and remedies for obtaining the restoration of his or hers civil rights. “The words mean what they say,” said Florida ACLU executive director Howard Simon. “This is why there are judges. We were just trying to get the state to live up to its legal obligations.” “The cost to the state of Florida of defending this archaic and unjust system of lifetime disenfranchisement just dramatically increased as a result of yesterday’s decision,” Simon said in an interview Thursday. “It has to provide one-on-one assistance to people to get their civil rights restored. And you have to add that cost to the cost of the FDLE [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] in compiling the felon purge list, the division of elections in hiring and marinating consultants for the felon purge list and to the local elections supervisor.” Florida is one of only six states that permanently bar convicted felons who have served their sentences from voting unless their civil rights are restored through an administrative process. The governor must sign off on the restoration of rights but has broad discretion to approve or deny applications. The permanent loss of civil rights hurts felons’ job prospects. For example, a contractor’s license is off-limits until the civil rights have been restored. In March 2001, the state’s black legislative caucus filed a lawsuit in Leon Circuit Court challenging the DOC’s policy. The plaintiffs sought a writ of mandamus or injunctive and declaratory relief to compel the department to provide about-to-be-released felons with the forms. In the summer of 2002, Judge Davey denied their request, but suggested the two sides try to reach an agreement, which they did for felons released from 1996 to 2000. The plaintiffs then appealed Davey’s refusal to require the DOC to hand out the forms to all released felons. Currently, the DOC sends a list of eligible felons to the Executive Office of Clemency, which notifies them about the process. Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the DOC, said the department hasn’t decided whether it will appeal Wednesday’s ruling. “We really believe we’ve got a streamlined process that gets out all the right information,” Ivey said. Randall Marshall of the ACLU of Florida Foundation in Miami, and Randall C. Berg Jr. and Peter M. Siegel of the Florida Justice Institute in Miami argued the case on behalf of the black legislative caucus. James A. Peters, special counsel, in the Office of the Attorney General, represented the DOC. Deborah Goldberg and Jessie Allen of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school filed a friend of the court brief.

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