The Florida Board of Clemency restored the civil rights of Jessica Chiappone of Boca Raton in June, paving the way for the single mother and graduate of Nova Southeastern University law school to sit for the bar.
Almost 15 years ago, Chiappone was arrested as a teenager for a drug-related felony. As a first-time nonviolent offender, she served seven months in prison, one year in a halfway house, and three years on supervised release.
Since then — she told Gov. Rick Scott and the three Cabinet members sitting as the Board of Clemency — she has worked to turn her life around.
Chiappone was convicted and served her time in New York, where her rights were automatically restored when she completed her probation. It took Chiappone five years to regain her civil rights in Florida.
Chiappone, vice president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, laments changes that were made in Florida in 2011 that imposed what she calls some of the most restrictive criteria for rights restoration in the nation.
“For perspective, during the administration of the previous governor, more than 150,000 Floridians regained their civil rights,” Chiappone wrote in a column for The Tampa Bay Times. “Now, almost two-and-a-half years into the Scott administration, the Clemency Board has granted less than 500 applications for restoration.”
She said former felony offenders already face many obstacles to re-entry into society, and the challenge in Florida is exacerbated by the difficulty of regaining one’s civil rights.
Chiappone’s attorney, Mark Schlakman of Tallahassee, notes the Parole Commission released a report last summer that indicated there was a positive correlation between ex-felons’ regaining their civil rights and a reduction in recidivism, and a bill passed last year no longer requires ex-felons to demonstrate they had regained their civil rights to apply for various occupational and professional licenses and other jobs that require state certification.
“Since public safety concerns have been addressed and redirected away from the civil rights restoration process, essentially all that remains of Florida’s civil rights restoration debate is a philosophical question: Have ex-felons paid their debt to society upon completion of sentence?” Schlakman said.
Schlakman has asked the Cabinet to revisit their “highly restrictive civil rights restoration policy” and consider moving toward routine rights restoration upon completion of sentence.