Jeb Bush Made Voting Rights Contingent on Sobriety, but Cut Funding for Treatment

As governor, Bush emphasized the importance of sobriety. His veto record says otherwise.

Gene J. Puskar/AP


In February 2000, an ex-felon named Timothy White appeared before Jeb Bush to petition the Florida governor to restore his right to vote. Bush’s staff had recommended that the request be denied, but White hoped his compelling story would sway the governor.

“I committed a lot of things in my life that I regret, but seven years ago today, when I walked in that treatment center, I was a homeless drug addict without hope,” he told Bush and his cabinet at a hearing in the state Capitol building. “I made a dedication to God and my family and to a 12-step program, and since that day, thank God, I’m a new man.”

“What treatment program did you—” Bush asked White, who answered before the governor could complete his question. “Gateway Community Services,” White responded.

Bush announced he would restore White’s civil rights. State Treasurer Bill Nelson, who is now a Democratic US senator from Florida, congratulated Bush on his decision, noting that White’s case was one where “this body can really offer mercy.”

White was ecstatic. “You don’t know how much it means to me,” he gushed. “I didn’t think you’d do it.”

“God bless you,” Bush replied.

Two years later, Gateway Community Services sought $100,000 from the state to help inmates struggling with substance abuse and mental disorders. The Florida state legislature approved the funding as part of that year’s budget. Bush vetoed it.

Read MoJo‘s investigation of Jeb Bush’s role in perpetuating Florida’s war on black voters.

Florida is one of just three states that permanently disenfranchises everyone with a felon conviction. Today, that system excludes nearly 1.5 million Floridians from voting and disproportionately affects African Americans, with about 20 percent of the state’s black voting-age population barred from the ballot box. For many people, such as White, the only way to earn back the right to vote, to serve on a jury, and to run for office is to make the trip to Tallahassee and personally petition the governor and cabinet for clemency. Mother Jones recently analyzed more than 1,000 pages of transcripts to assess how Bush, now a Republican presidential candidate, oversaw the process during his eight years as governor.

Before restoring an ex-felon’s civil rights, Bush wanted proof that the former offender had put his past behind him and become a productive member of society. He asked the men and women who appeared before him if they had a job. If ex-offenders had committed crimes involving drugs or alcohol—a significant portion of them had—he wanted them to be sober. Completing a treatment program helped offer the proof Bush wanted that the people before him, like White, had truly turned a corner.

But Bush’s desire to see successful reintegration into society often ran up against his governing philosophy, which prioritized tax cuts and often rebuffed state legislators who sought additional funding for projects in their districts. Bush sought to rein in the budget by using his line-item veto power aggressively, cutting nearly $2 billion out of the state’s budgets from 1999 to 2007. Bush embraced the nickname “Veto Corleone” and has used it on the campaign trail as evidence of his conservative economic record. But many of the projects that succumbed to his veto pen were the very programs that helped ex-felons meet Bush’s own criteria for evaluating who deserved the right to vote.

Mother Jones searched a comprehensive list of all of Bush’s vetoes and found 32 vetoed items, totaling nearly $13 million, that would have funded programs for substance abuse and helped prisoners reintegrate into society. (The list below does not include many of the substance abuse programs targeted at adolescents. In his second year in office, Bush signed a law imposing draconian mandatory minimum sentences—up to 20 years in adult prison—for minors convicted of certain crimes, while also dedicating $5 million to drug and alcohol rehabilitation for minors.)

1999

G/A Contracted Svcs. (Community Coalition – Drug Prevention)

$600,000

1999

Substance Abuse Programs (Out of Bondage Substance Abuse Program – Dade
County)

$35,000

2000

Grants And Aids To Local Governments And Nonprofit Organizations
– Fixed Capital Outlay – Pinellas County Secure Drug Treatment
Facility For Offenders

$200,000

2000

Volusia Drug Residential Treatment Center – Flagler and Volusia
Counties

$1,800,000

2000

The Jail Alternative Project

$400,000

2001

Village Adolescent Treatment Program for Dually Diagnosed Girls – Dade County

$500,000

2001

L.A.P. “Life After Prison” (CBIR 481)

$300,000

2001

Jail Diversion Initiative-Volusia/Flagler Cnty (CBIR 470)

$500,000

2001

New Horizons of Treasure Coast – Indigent Drug Program Indian River, Martin, Palm Beach
and St. Lucie Counties

$200,000

2001

Enhancement of traffic law and substance abuse education courses

$1,620,000

2002

FDC Non-Secure Treatment Program

$50,000

2002

Methadone Outpatient Treatment, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis prevention services

$1,000,000

2002

Gateway Community Services for transitional housing for dually diagnosed inmates

$100,000

2002

Substance Abuse – Ethics Training and Investigations

$56,250

2002

Traffic Law and Substance Abuse Education

$1,620,000

2004

Kelly Hall Residential Treatment Facility

$250,000

2004

Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Center (Dade)

$250,000

2004

Safe House Substance Abuse

$150,000

2005

Criminon Offender Training Program

$500,000

2005

Treatment Services for Chronic Misdemeanor Offenders with Mental Illness
and/or Substance Abuse

$150,000

2005

Vocational/Entrepreneurial Training Program For Juvenile Offenders

$150,000

2005

Reentry Initiative Program

$150,000

2005

Village Jail Diversion Program

$100,000

2006

Back to Basics: Ex-Offender Reentry Program

$80,000

2006

Project Reconnect/The Habitual Misdemeanor Offender Program

$75,000

2006

Treatment Services for Chronic Misdemeanor Offenders with Mental Illness and/or
Substance Abuse

$400,000

2006

Regional 15 Bed Children/Adolescent Residential Substance Abuse Treatment
Facility – Citrus, Marion

$1,000,000

2006

Substance Abuse Treatment Diversion in Lee County

$175,000

2006

Jail Diversion Pilot Project (GAP)

$250,000

2006

Women Helping Women Jail Project

$150,000

2006

Lisa Merlin House – Orange, Seminole

$150,000

  TOTAL

$12,961,250

Despite these vetoes, Bush did take steps to assess prisoners’ reentry into society and lower recidivism rates. In February 2005, he commissioned the Governor’s Ex-Offender Task Force to study the issue. The task force issued a final report a month before Bush left office. It noted that more than half of the state’s prison inmates had substance abuse issues, yet state funding for treatment programs was nearly halved from 2000 to 2004. The Task Force also found that funding for education and vocational training for prisoners, another key ingredient to successful reentry into society, had fallen by a third in the same period. The report called for the state to expand its treatment of substance abuse, including for inmates suffering from addiction and a mental disorder.

Bush did enact some reforms aimed at rehabilitation, including the country’s first faith-based prison, which featured activities such as religious studies and choir and brought in community volunteers to work with prisoners. The Task Force’s 2006 report found that faith-based prisons showed promise. While it was too early to study changes in recidivism, disciplinary rates at these prisons were half of what they were at other facilities.

The Bush campaign did not respond to a request for comment.