Washington, DC (Aug. 14, 2023) – Voting rights activist and Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) Desmond Meade was awarded the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) Champion of Justice Rights Restoration Award at the Association’s Annual Meeting in Chicago. Champion of Justice Awards are bestowed upon those individuals who – through legislative, journalistic, philanthropic, or humanitarian pursuits – have staunchly preserved or defended the constitutional rights of American citizens and have endeavored to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime.
Desmond Meade is a formerly homeless and incarcerated individual who has dedicated his career to activism and the fight for voting rights. Meade became the head of the FRRC in 2009. The FRRC is dedicated to ending disenfranchisement and discrimination against people with convictions, and creating a more comprehensive and humane reentry system that will enhance successful reentry, reduce recidivism, and increase public safety. In 2013, Meade and FRRC focused their efforts on launching a ballot initiative for voting rights restoration in the state. This required galvanizing a broad, diverse coalition to support the initiative, as well as advocating and protesting for voting rights across the state. In 2014, FRRC testified at the United Nations Committee on Human Rights. Their testimony included details on the effects of voter disenfranchisement across the country. By 2015, support for voting rights restoration was growing, with advocates expanding the call for reform throughout the state. The support garnered this year culminated in the petition collection for a ballot initiative that would become known as “Amendment 4”. In 2016, the number of disenfranchised Floridians reached an estimated total of 1,686,000, including more than 1 in 5 of Florida’s Black voting-age population. By 2017, the Florida Supreme Court approved the petition language and FRRC collected close to a million petition signatures, which meant the constitutional amendment would be on the 2018 ballot.
In November 2018, Amendment 4 needed 60% of the votes to pass. Millions of Floridians turned out and the Amendment passed with 65% of the votes, restoring voting rights to 1.4 million people. This historical achievement marks the single largest expansion of voting rights in the United States in half a century and ended 150 years of voter disenfranchisement in the state of Florida. Amendment 4 was written into Florida’s constitution in 2019, marking the end of lifetime bans on voting for individuals with past convictions. Unfortunately, as a response to this passage, the state legislature passed SB 7066 which required these returning citizens to pay all fines and fees resulting from their convictions before they could register to vote (this meant over 750,000 people were still barred from voting due to outstanding fees). FRRC decided to get to work and raise the money to help pay the fees of those targeted by SB 7066 and is still fighting the pushback from state legislators against the democratically passed Amendment 4. For all of his work, Time Magazine named Desmond Meade one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” for 2019. In 2020, FRRC expanded the voting rights movement and continued raising money for returning citizens. More than 190,000 of these returning citizens registered to vote in the 2020 election. In 2021, FRRC led the successful effort to reform the state’s civil rights restoration process through the Florida Clemency Board, and Meade was named a 2021 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. In February 2023, FRRC was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their work with returning citizens and removing unnecessary obstacles to successful reentry. Today, FRRC continues to push for the restoration of voting rights and advance the call for justice by partnering with community leaders, nonprofits, legislators, celebrities, and more to remedy and remove barriers for formerly incarcerated individuals so that they can have a fair and just second chance.
Upon receiving the award, Desmond Meade said: “Thank you all so much for this honor. NACDL has been in my life and in the fight to restore civil rights for quite some time. It is not easy living and working in Florida with the pushback received around Amendment 4 and seeing how politics have creeped into the courtroom. We are seeing returning citizens, Floridians, arrested for registering to vote after they were told they were eligible to vote. These are people who received a voter ID from the state. The state’s system is broken. These arrests and new efforts by state legislators since the passage of Amendment 4 have prevented over a million returning citizens from participating in the democratic process. I am committed to continuing the work and fighting for these people who should benefit from Amendment 4. I am also committed to taking moments like this in which I’m being recognized and using it as a platform to call for continuing and increasing your support for this effort. Criminal defense attorneys are the last line of defense for civilization and our democracy. Right now, in Florida, our democracy is close to being destroyed and we need you now, more than ever, to stand up and fight for people like me and fight for citizens who rely on the courts and our justice system to uphold equality. Thank you again for this award.”
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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.