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McCollum: Make Licensing Fla. For Felons Tougher

BILL KACZOR, Associated Press Writer
Nov 3, 2009 5:42 pm US/Eastern

TALLAHASSEE | A gTALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) ― Attorney General Bill McCollum urged Florida lawmakers Tuesday to make it tougher for former felons to get occupational licenses for jobs involving children, seniors and disabled people.

McCollum, who's also running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, asked for the repeal or modification of a law that requires the state to grant licenses to ex-convicts who've had their civil rights restored except for crimes directly related to those jobs.

"That is a very bad provision," McCollum said at a joint meeting of three House panels. "Let the licensing agency have more latitude. Right now they're in probably a straight jacket."

Other officials also offered suggestions for closing loopholes in criminal background checks required for jobs in day care centers, schools, nursing homes and many other health care, social services and education workplaces.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, has directed the committees to take on the issue after the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported thousands of ex-felons have slipped through the screening process.

McCollum's proposal is workable, said Mark R. Schlakman, senior program director at Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, but that's as long as changes affecting licensing don't prevent felons from getting their civil rights restored for such things as voting and serving on juries.

"Civil rights restoration has to be completely separated from this process," Schlakman said in an interview. "These are public safety issues."

McCollum and Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon also each recommended that a three-year waiting period before felons can apply for a license should be lengthened.

Sheldon pointed out the current three-year wait starts running from the time the crime was committed. He suggested a five-year period starting when a felon is released from prison or completes probation.

McCollum and Sheldon also agreed agencies should have the authority to revoke exemptions they've granted to those who have committed crimes that were related to their jobs if new information is obtained.

About 25 percent of fingerprint background checks handled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are submitted on paper.

Sheldon said all should be done electronically, but state law currently permits either option and in some cases requires paper. He said electronic is cheaper and faster — between one and three days compared to as many as eight weeks for paper.

Sheldon also urged that no one be allowed to work until their screenings have been completed. Current laws are mixed. For instance, teaching and nursing home applicants cannot work until their checks are completed while day care employees can.

"While I do believe in rehabilitation, I do think it is very important to strongly err on the side of caution particularly when we're dealing with vulnerable children and adults," Sheldon said.

For jobs working with children, he said lawmakers may want to impose a lifetime ban rather than just a waiting period.

Florida Health Care Association member Lisa McGinley asked lawmakers not to do anything that would cause delays or additional costs in hiring workers.

Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council Chairman William Snyder, R-Stuart, assured her lawmakers don't want to create any unintended consequences.

"We don't want, in our zeal to protect the vulnerable people in our population, to create a stumbling block for you," Snyder said.

(© 2009 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)