“Ten years ago I was 22 years old and I decided to get in trouble,” Ronald Mills, 32, said in front of a crowd of more than 40 people Saturday at the Restoration of Civil Rights & Second Chances: A Discussion on the Proposed Constitutional Amendment workshop.
The Gainesville native shared his story of coming back into the community after serving a 49-month sentence for robbery with a deadly weapon. Now, he’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in information technology at Santa Fe College.
“I was fortunate enough to get up, leave and learn from those experiences,” he said. “I really appreciate the opportunities I’ve been given.”
Mills was just one of five panelists who spoke at the event, held at the Hall of Heroes Community Room at the Gainesville Police Department. The event ran from 10 a.m. to noon.
Panelists covered topics related to the proposed voting rights restoration amendment, which will be on the ballot in Florida for the November 2018 elections. The amendment seeks to restore voting rights for convicted felons after all parts of their sentence are served, including probation or parole.
Currently, Florida has what some call a “lifetime ban” on the rights of convicted felons said Meshon Rawls, a professor at the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida and a panelist at the event. Those rights include the right to vote, serve on a jury and run for public office.
“Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia have the most restrictive processes because you cannot get your rights restored until you apply to do so, versus an automatic process,” she said.
The current Florida process requires felons convicted of non-serious offenses to serve their jail or prison sentence, finish parole or probation, pay restitution and wait five years without an arrest incident to be able to apply for rights restoration, Rawls said. For felons who were convicted of more serious offenses, the same process applies but the wait time goes up to seven years. After applying, it is up to the governor and members on the Florida Executive Clemency Board to decide if someone may have their rights restored.
“When we see felony convictions on people, we label them for life,” Rawls said. “It disengages them and they become disenchanted with the political process.”
Other workshop speakers included Dr. Karen Cole-Smith of East Gainesville Instruction and Community Outreach at Santa Fe College, shareholder Stephanie Marchman of GrayRobinson’s Gainesville law firm office, and Terrill Gardner of Gainesville, who was arrested when he was 16 and was another person giving their testimony of coming back into the community after he served a sentence at the Department of Corrections for 5 years and 10 months.
The workshop was hosted by the Gainesville Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and the Delta Sigma Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc.
“This collaboration is huge for us, we feel like together we can reach more and do more,” Yvette Carter, second vice president of the Delta Sigma Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc., said.
Workshops like this one, Carter said, are important because they allow experts to break down complex issues into layman’s terms for the community to better understand what they’re voting for.
“When a voter goes into a voting booth, they are more likely to vote whatever their conscience is,” she said. “An informed voter is an empowered voter.”