One Woman’s Fight For Her Civil Rights … One Party’s Quest To Keep Them From Her
A Defiant Republican Administration Plays Politics With Ex-Felons’ Rights As The Battle For 2012 Rages On
By: Mark Christopher
Cover photo by: Gian Pietri
ikki Hankins is one of the most positive, forward-thinking individuals you will ever meet.
She has a great sense of humor and an unbelievable determination to succeed.
She is well spoken and full of spirit. She also has a degree and a fledgling publishing business.
All of which is quite remarkable considering what she has been through.
But there are some things that Vikki Hankins can't do. The State of Florida - under Gov. Rick Scott - won't allow it. She can't vote, sit on a jury or hold public office. She also can be denied certain state licenses.
Why? … Because Hankins is an ex-felon, and earlier this year, Scott and the rest of the Clemency Board voted 4-0 to revise the civil rights restoration process, making it more difficult for ex-felons to get their rights back.
Now Hankins and others like her will have to wait even longer before they can once again participate fully in society.
According to the Florida Attorney General's office, "The Florida Constitution, the people's charter of government, disqualifies an individual who has been convicted of a felony from voting or holding office until his or her civil rights have been restored."
And to get those rights restored, ex-felons have to go through the Office of Executive Clemency.
"The Clemency Board will review each application individually before deciding whether to grant restoration of civil rights," so said the Executive Clemency press release, issued at the time of the changes.
Those changes threw out the modernized clemency process that former Gov. Charlie Crist pushed through four years ago. Crist, a moderate Republican, restored the voting rights of more than 150,000 former non-violent prisoners.
It was something that people of all stripes from across the state had worked long and hard to accomplish.
But Scott and his hardcore conservative GOP brethren had other plans when they came into office - to make ex-felons wait an extra five to seven years before they could even think of getting their rights back.
"But in March, after only 30 minutes of public debate, Gov. Rick Scott overturned his predecessor's decision, instantly disenfranchising 97,491 ex-felons and prohibiting another 1.1
million prisoners from being allowed to vote after serving their time," Ari Berman wrote in the Sept. 2011 edition of Rolling Stone.
Hankins is one of those 1.1 million. And she is not happy about it.
"I don't think it is the governor's job or ... the attorney general's job to see whether or not everyone released from prison is going to commit crimes, says Hankins. "That's what the probation officers are supposed to do."
Photos: Office of Executive Clemency
Gov. Scott and his Cabinet voted 4-0 to make the clemency changes The governor and the attorney general - the two most powerful politicians in the state - disagree.
At the time of the clemency overhaul in March, Scott claimed that the changes would, "protect public safety and create incentives to avoid criminal activity."
But that statement flies in the face of felons who are out of work with limited options and a reduced amount of participation in American society. Labor officials say the jobless rate for
felons runs as high as 60%. If I was trying to push an ex-felon back into a life I crime, I would deny them their civil rights as long as possible.
Build resentment and mistrust of government. Make them feel like an outsider. We've got something you don't. Give people who've already proven to be willing to commit crimes against their fellow citizens a reason to disengage from society.
That's exactly what you don't want to do - or so says the data from Virginia, which "has achieved lower-than-average recidivism rates is difficult to pin down …. One likely factor, though, is lack of parole," according to experts interviewed by The Washington Post.
And even the Board of Executive Clemency press release that announced the changes accepts the notion that restoring a prisoner's rights is a good thing, stating that, "The restoration of civil rights can be a significant part of the rehabilitation of criminal offenders and can assist them in reentry into society."
No matter, Attorney General Pam Bondi feels that ex-felons must earn their rights back.
"I believe that every convicted felon must actively apply for the restoration of his or her civil rights and that there should be a mandatory waiting period before applying," Bondi press released back in February. "The restoration of civil rights for any felon must be earned, it is not an entitlement."
Photo: Gian Pietri/Sunshine Slate Images
Vikki Hankins would like to vote in the 2012 election
Civil Rights Not An Entitlement?
Sure, our state constitution spells out that they ex-felons must have their civil rights restored, but it doesn't say how long they have to wait. That is left up to whoever is in power at the time.
Politicians making decisions about people's civil rights based on nothing more than a feeling. Or a talking point.
Or a political ideology. An April 2001 Schroth and Associates Poll that sampled 600 adult Floridians showed that by huge margins, that a vast majority of Republicans simply do not support restoring the voting rights of felons.
Percentages who support "restoring the voting rights of felons": African-American community
18-34 year olds
Those who did not vote in the presidential election last fall 45%
Persons undecided about whether they will vote in the 2002 Florida 57%
But logic - and available data - would dictate that assimilating ex-felons back into society is a good thing. Don't we, as a society, want to welcome them back, to give them positive reinforcement and to feel part of the tribe again, so they don't turn back to crime?
The official state answer under Gov. Scott is a resounding "no." Before an ex-felon can get possibly their rights back, Florida now requires that:
Five years have passed since the date of completion of all sentences and conditions of supervision imposed for all felony convictions, and you must remain crime and arrest free for five years prior to being reviewed by the Florida Parole Commission.
And that's just for non-violent offenders. What about ex-felons who they deem committed a
"serious" crime? Those people must wait seven years.
The restoring of one's civil rights is supposed to be a routine exercise, a simple filing of paperwork. You do your time, you make it through probation, and then you get to rejoin society, which includes having your civil rights, dignity and the basis-for-respect back.
Not in Florida. The rules are different here (sorry to reanimate the corpse that is Florida's famed
- and much-maligned - tourism slogan from the mid-'80s). The state's citizens now have less options for voting, less access to polls and outright disenfranchisement from a 100%
Republican-controlled state government.
Now, ex-felons are a political football for the Republicans in charge to toss around, and Gov.
Scott is the star quarterback who threw a touchdown when he changed the rules to the ultra-conservatives' satisfaction.
But not everyone was high-fiving or dunking coolers of Gatorade on Scott's head. His decision and that fateful 4-0 vote caused an uproar throughout the state and across the country, not surprising as polls indicate that the citizens don't agree with Scott's position.
Video still frame of "The Rules Are Different Here" ad campaign TV spot Groups who monitor civil rights were outraged. Challenges were launched on a variety of fronts, including through talking-head media appearances, press releases, and in the courts.
In April, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking them to review the decision claiming that it is a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act prohibiting racially discriminatory voting practices.
“Given the fact that the new five year waiting requirement has a direct impact on voting, and given its adverse impact on minorities, we believe the Department of Justice should request Florida officials to submit the new rule for [review],” Laughlin McDonald, director of the Voting Rights Project of the ACLU, wrote in the letter.
“These new rules have a direct impact on who is able to vote in Florida,” McDonald said. “Given the troubling history of suppressing minority votes in Florida, it is critical that the Department of Justice review these changes to ensure that an entire segment of the population is not blocked from exercising their fundamental right to vote.”
Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, also chimed in, claiming that, “The changes, including the secretive and rushed process by which the rules were created, smack of raw politics and intentional, racially focused election manipulation."
Back in March, the Board of Executive Clemency approved the changes with little debate or public comment, save for a 24-page proposal made public only minutes before the vote.
“Once a person has paid their debt, they should be quickly and fully integrated back into the community,” Danielle Prendergast of the ACLU of Florida, was quoted as saying in the media.
“Al the research supports this notion that fast, seamless and complete reintegration reduces crime.”
Instead, on its website, the ACLU of Florida warns the state's citizens that, "Applying for restoration of your civil rights opens you to investigation by the Florida Parole Commission. You may also have to undergo a hearing."
"The process is long, and there are no guarantees that your rights will be restored."
This is progress? Scott and Bondi seem to think so.
The Florida Legislative Black Caucus was similarly displeased in a press release protesting the new policy.
“The purpose of the corrections and criminal justice systems in this State is to equip ex-offenders with the tools they need to become productive citizens," stated State Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando), Chairman of the Black Caucus. "How can they do that when they don’t have a citizens’ basic rights?”
A March 4 letter to the Florida Office of Executive Clemency was co-written and signed by the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Sentencing Project and a professor at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. The letter stated: It is well documented that Florida’s criminal disenfranchisement laws are a relic of a discriminatory past. Florida’s disenfranchisement law was enacted after the Civil War when the Fifteenth Amendment forced the state to enfranchise African-American men.
The voting ban was an attempt to weaken political power of African-Americans, and it continues to have its intended effect today. The current law continues to exclude African-Americans from the polls at more than twice the rate of other Florida citizens.
And on March 25, the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Advancement Project
AG Bondi declined. On April 8, she replied that “[w]e do not agree that the [Voting Rights Act]
applies to these rules.”
Many Police Support The Governor's Stance On Disenfranchising Ex-Felons But there was support to be found for the changes from the cops and prosecutors who deal with criminals on a day-to-day basis: The Florida Police Chiefs Association, the Florida Sheriffs 8
Association and state attorneys all made it clear that they felt that ex-felons should have to wait longer to get their rights back.
“Convicted felons should be required to demonstrate why they should have their rights restored as well as document their commitment not to re-offend,” said Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger earlier this year.
“With so much recidivism, it’s only fair they prove they are committed to a life free of crime before their civil rights are restored,” Florida Police Chiefs Association president Peter Paulding was quoted as saying.
Something tells me he didn't look at the data. By his own words, Paulding should be against Scott's clemency changes because recent studies have found that felons who have gotten their
Besides, isn't that the job of the probation officer to determine whether or not a felon is ready to play nice with society again?
"The probation officer says '[I'm] on the right track, there's no need to keep [me] on probation until the year 2013," says Hankins. "Now, the governor is saying, 'screw that, keep Vikki Hankins in this position to see if she's gonna commit more crimes.'"
"I had the perfect structure for committing a crime , to go back [into prison] ... I'm sleeping on the floor on cement in the winter with a cold ... suicidal thoughts."
Hankins obviously bristles at the assumption.
"I don't have to prove anything to anyone," she says.
But There May Be Hope On The Horizon For Hankins And The Millions Like Her Florida Legislative Black Caucus member State Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-55) has filed a bill that would speed up the clemency for ex-felons like Hankins that have more than proven themselves to have worked their way back into society since being released.
And The Palm Beach Post reported last week that before their meeting, Gov. Scott told the Florida Legislative Black Caucus that he is open to revising the process that restores a felon's civil rights.
"We have got to figure out how to get people that have gone to prison back in society," Scott is quoted as telling the media, as reported by the Post. "On the other side we've got to make sure we don't do things that make it less safe than it is in our state. But absolutely, if there's more information, I'm very receptive."
When contacted by Sunshine Slate, the governor's office sounded a more ominous tone, a course correction of sorts.
Photo: Meredith Geddings
Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-55) of St. Petersburg, debates in opposition to HB 1355
"[Gov. Scott] is open to suggestions for ways to more efficiently process requests for clemency,"
offered deputy press secretary Jackie Schutz in an email. "Such suggestions will need to include ideas for funding any additional resources that may be required for more expeditious review."
Schutz also reminded Sunshine Slate that, "The Governor does not support felons automatically having their rights restored."
Bondi, also against automatic restoration, bangs the same hardline drum. Bondi's press secretary Jennifer Krell Davis told Sunshine Slate that, "Attorney General Bondi believes that felons must apply for the restoration of civil rights after waiting for a time long enough to demonstrate rehabilitation."
If there are changes are made after Scott's meeting with members of the Black Caucus, they will not come in the form of automatic restoration, for sure. Expect some sort of middle ground to be 10
Photo: Gian Pietri/Sunshine Slate Images
Vikki Hankins at her Supervisor of Elections office
reached, something in the neighborhood of maybe 2.5 years for all ex-felons. But they would also have to do something about backlog and the waiting list or it could take years to catch up.
Scott & Co. may just simply be playing nice with the Black Caucus with no intention of giving any ground on the matter. That's politics.
Until then, Hankins and others like her will continue to push and prod Scott and Bondi to do what they see as the right thing. In fact, Hankins would like to see the decision-making process of whether or not someone can have their rights back taken out of the politicians' hands altogether.
"I don't feel like that's something for Tallahassee, for the office of Executive Clemency," says Hankins of the restoration of an ex-felon's rights. "They shouldn't be taking on the responsibility that a probation officer has [to declare someone rehabilitated]."
Voter Suppression - A Concerted Effort By Republicans
When Scott and the Republicans swept into office during the 2010 election, they ran several plays - some would say - designed to keep Democrats out of voting booths, at least through the 2012 election cycle.
HB 1355 ... set ... hike.
Keeping ex-felons from getting their rights back is a big part of that effort alongside the provisions in HB 1355:
forcing provisional ballots (excluding people who move a lot from voting)
cutting the duration of early voting (hurts blacks and students)
making absentee ballots harder to cast (requires the elderly to match their signatures on file, even with disabilities)
fining of third-party voter registration groups for not turning in forms within 48 hours (severely limits volunteerism)
Just last month, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning filed a complaint that said parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were unconstitutional. Browning was hoping to use that as a first strike against the inevitable case coming down from the U.S. Justice Department. A bold move considering the possible negative fall-out that could come from challenging the landmark legislation in court.
The idea was to end the federal government's watchful eye over five Florida counties that fall under the act's jurisdiction so that the new voter suppression laws could go into effect and not be reviewed on constitutional grounds.
Throughout this push to disenfranchise voters and limit access to the polls, Florida Republicans have used the battle cry of "voter fraud" to make their case.
Problem is, they don't have one - the Florida Department of State noted only 31 cases of
alleged voter fraud between 2008-2011. Only two of those cases resulted in arrests. Not exactly a big problem, by any measure.
Nationally, the fraud figures are the same: a 2002-2007 U.S. Justice Department report showed that federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud - out of 300 million votes cast (many were felons and immigrants who were unaware that they couldn't participate).
A 2007 paper by the Brennan Center for Justice - reported on by Rolling Stone - laid it out in a way that can be easily digested by those living in Florida: "It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning," the report calculated, "than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."
But that type of fraud is not even an issue anymore as the state developed a voter database to confirm identities - a reaction to the tumultuous 2000 election cycle. Somebody would have to be pretty crafty - or have some help on the inside - to commit fraud at the polls in Florida.
Nonetheless, Republicans site it as a concern.
Photo: FL Dept. of State
Florida Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning
So Practically Zero Chance Of Fraud ... Why Then The Changes?
Unfortunately, the real reason that voting laws are changing is simple: Republicans want to keep low-income voters, students, seniors, and minorities away from the polls. Those groups tend to vote Democrat.
The 2008 Obama sweep scared Republicans. They have been on the offensive ever since, doing whatever it takes to keep Democrats from casting votes. They feel that in close elections, the disenfranchisement strategy will yield one to two percentage-points at the polls - just enough to secure victories in many races.
But disenfranchising ex-felons could ultimately be damaging to the party's platform as a 2002
poll showed that 80% of those sampled say that ex-felons should have the right to vote.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) informed the governor that he will have to answer to the U.S. Justice Department for the state's actions. Nelson - a Washington veteran who might know a little about these things - says Florida must get federal clearance for “any changes to election laws that could impact racial, ethnic or language minorities.”
Many legal minds agree with Nelson and HB 1355 is currently under review by the U.S. Justice Department. But will a decision come down in time for the 2012 election?
The moves Florida has made have been so swift and so damaging to voters' rights that Florida has become a battleground with national voices jumping into the fray.
Always a voice for the oppressed, Rev. Jesse Jackson called Florida "ground zero" in a national war against voters' rights, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
"The irony is we fight wars for democracy abroad and declare war on democracy at home,"
Jackson said in a news conference over the summer, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel. "All we really want is an even playing field."
Even former President Bill Clinton weighed in. He was quoted in Rolling Stone as saying that,
"One of the most pervasive political movements going on outside Washington today is the disciplined, passionate, determined effort of Republican governors and legislators to keep most of you from voting next time."
"Why is all of this going on? This is not rocket science," said the former President. "They are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate."
A Rolling Stone Gathers ...
Hankins first heard about what Gov. Scott was doing to the rights restoration process on the radio back, back in March or April.
"Is this true?" she remembered asking herself, before digging into the internet for answers.
It turned out to be 100% true. But she never thought of the restoration change as part of a political play until she read that article in Rolling Stone that spelled out in black and white the fact that Florida Republicans had passed the new rules to keep as many Democrats from voting as possible.
"It opened my eyes to what was really going on," says Hankins. "There was something about [it]
... they had it laid out ... the way it was put together. That Rolling Stone magazine ... was the bang wake-up for me,"
She now feels like a pawn in some political chess match instead of a living, breathing person.
She decided right then that, "No, I am not going to be used for whomever for you all to gain some type of power, regain power, take control for x amount of years. Again, I am a human 14
Photo: Mark Christopher/Sunshine Slate Images
President Bill Clinton in Orlando stumping for Kendrick Meek back in 2010
being, you are not going to use me as a pawn for selfish reasons, bottom line. For matters of power or control."
The Never-Ending Journey
Hankins first filed to have her rights restored in 2008. The first time we spoke, she had not yet received any information on the status of her application. Not a letter, an email or a phone call.
And she has diligently tried to get through to somebody ... anybody.
When Hankins checked online it would say "Record Not Found." Repeated calls to the Executive Clemency Office were a dead-end - every time she got a recording.
"No one ever answers the phone," she says.
She wrote letters reminding them that since her release, she has earned a Paralegal Studies degree, but that she cannot maximize her educational efforts without her civil rights.
She has waited three long years for something, anything from the state.
But at last, on Oct. 20, 2011, Hankins received an email from Cynthia Deason, an administrative assistant for the Office of Executive Clemency. The email stated that Vikki Hankins would be eligible to have her rights restored in ... 2017. And that's still a maybe.
Hankins was noticeably crushed. In 2017 she will be 49 years old.
Ms. Hankins - This is in response to your email inquiring about your restoration of civil rights and the time in which you can reapply based on your offenses.
As mentioned in the letter you received from this office dated October 20, 2011, Governor Scott and his Cabinet amended the Office of Executive Clemency rules March 9, 2011. Based on a person's offense, be it a violent crime versus a non-violent crime, is the time line in which you would have to wait before you can apply to have your restoration of civil rights restored. A non-violent crime you would have to wait five years from the time one comes off of probation or end of sentence and a violent crime you would have to wait seven years from the time one comes off of probation or end of sentence.
Based on your federal offenses, even though may not be considered violent crimes, falls under Rule 10A requiring a seven-year waiting period. Your supervised release was terminated on March 29, 2010, and therefore, you will not be eligible until the year 2017.
If you have any further questions or if this office can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Office of Executive Clemency
END OF PART ONE
Photo: Gian Pietri/Sunshine Slate Images
Hankins will be almost 50 years old in 2017
Vikki Hankins: A Lifetime of Set-Backs
This latest set-back is only one in a series of unfortunate events for Vikki Hankins. Hankins, now 43, spent nearly half of her life in a federal prison for selling crack cocaine, then called "cocaine base."
Today, her federal sentence would be considered too long. Back in the late-'80s and early '90s, it was just right for reactionary legislators eager to tide the crack epidemic.
Yes, she was slinging crack cocaine, but she was also a victim of overzealous sentencing guidelines which were later deemed to be racially unjust by the 2000s-era Congress (Hankins is African-American).
Although she takes full responsibility for her actions, her drug dealing itself was a symptom of the trauma and depression she suffered just as she was graduating from high school. At the time, she suffered both physical and mental abuse and was forced into a hastily arranged marriage for religious reasons.
Her mother's worsening mental condition even played out in one final dramatic act.
And Hankins, a Jehovah's Witness since birth, was not very street smart and was ill-equipped to handle it all. She grew up in a strict home in tiny Crescent City, pop. 1800, which is a 30-40
minute drive North of DeLand.
It is the kind of place where everybody knows your name and your personal business, whether you like it or not.
"We would have to Palatka to get our school clothes," says Hankins of the small town upbringing.
Hankins was raised by her single-parent mother and grandmother in that small-town's sheltered environment. You know - church, school, more church. They were Witnesses, after all.
"Every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday," says Vikki of her family's church going. "I didn't participate in any extracurricular activities because our spirituality was number one. ... We knocked on doors, that was my life."
At "15 or 16," she moved into grandma's house at her mom's insistence, the idea was for Vikki help take care of her recently widowed family matriarch. Instead, it turned out to be a recipe for disaster.
"When I wrote my book and reflected back on my life ... it was there, at that point, where my mom moved me from my home to my grandmother's, is where I think ... I started changing,"
admits Hankins. "My grades started failing and little things started ... depression."
Her mother thought she could still hold the family together, and keep a tight grip on Vikki. She thought wrong ... and she knew it, too. The family started to disintegrate. Vikki's mom started to sink deeper into a pit of despair.
But Vikki didn't really notice her mom's troubles; she was too busy sneaking around, which was a breeze now that she was at grandma's. Although it wasn't until her senior year that a certain boy from her school came calling and swept her off her feet.
And Into A Lifetime Of Trouble
He was the star quarterback of the football team, but he was also a proven problem child who had been kicked out of his last high school.
She is still paying for that relationship almost 25 years later. And it all happened so fast.
Before Vikki even graduated high school, she was living with her new boyfriend at his dad's place. Her mom couldn't handle it at all.
"She was more stressed that I didn't know anything about boys or the world and society, because I had always lived such a sheltered and protected life," says Vikki. "For me to be out with a 'street guy' ... she was devastated."
Corner of N. Summit Street and E. Central Avenue in Crescent City Her mom knew what bad things could happen to her little girl. And she was right, but was powerless to stop it.
Vikki quickly found out that life was indeed tough and suddenly grown-up outside of the warming confines of grandma's house. For instance, she had never seen smoking and drinking of alcohol before - and now it was all around.
And to make matters worse, her boyfriend was abusive and was using large amounts drugs, which, heretofore, Hankins had never even seen, let alone used.
"I didn't know what drugs looked like, from television ... nothing. ... [My mother] made sure watched certain shows like Little House on the Prairie," claims Hankins.
Her boyfriend's mood swings, violent outbursts and financial problems left Hankins shattered and disillusioned with it all. And to top it off, her boyfriend even beat her dad, who was visiting and tried to set the boy straight.
"For [my mother] to hear from strangers ... someone calling her in the middle of the night ... that
'[I was] passed out in a ditch, and the guy that I was with beat up [my] dad and broke his ribs,'"
says Hankins recalling the horror show that was her life. "That's not good news."
Still, Vikki thought that the best course of action was to not talk to her mom at all.
Photos: Supplied by Vikki Hankins
(L-R)Vikki Hankins at 17, at 12-13 years old on her mom's wedding day, and before braces
"Being a Jehovah's Witness, if the child is not doing according to the teachings of the Witnesses, that the parents are supposed to remain separated from the children," says Hankins.
"I was trying to abide by the teachings."
It didn't help, in fact it made them worse.
"It was starting to tear the family apart," said Hankins.