(Map from The Sentencing Project.)
(Map from The Sentencing Project.)

A historic win for voting rights in Virginia

(Map from The Sentencing Project.)
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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) unveiled a plan this week to automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of nonviolent felonies.

The move won praise from civil rights advocates who have long called for reform in the state, one of several with unusually harsh felon disenfranchisement laws.

"For too long, Virginia has been successful in implementing a law designed to target minority voters: one in five African-American adults in the state is disenfranchised," said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Gastañaga. "This expedited process is a move towards repairing some of this damage. We look forward to working with the Governor as he implements the new system."

Written into the state constitution, Virginia's felon disenfranchisement law denies voting rights for life to individuals with felony convictions, giving the governor sole power to restore voting rights for individual felons who apply after a two-year waiting period.

Virginia is one of only four states to permanently disenfranchise all individuals with past felony convictions unless they go through the onerous process of seeking restoration of their rights. The others are Florida, Kentucky and Iowa.

On May 29, McDonnell announced a plan to automatically restore voting rights for nonviolent felons in Virginia who complete their sentence, probation or parole; pay all court costs, fines and restitution and meet all court-ordered conditions; and have no pending felony charges. The plan is set to take effect on July 15.

McDonnell said in a statement:

I got my start in state public service in Virginia as a prosecutor. I strongly believe the foremost obligation of any government is to provide for the security and protection of its citizens. When someone commits a crime they must be justly punished. That is why, during my time in the General Assembly and as both attorney general and now governor, I have championed major reforms to ensure that sentences are appropriately set by law to punish those who commit serious offenses and to ensure that those convicted of offenses serve the sentence imposed.

However, once these individuals have served their time and fully paid for the offenses they committed, they should be afforded a clear and fair opportunity to resume their lives as productive members of our society. America is a land of opportunity and second chances; a land where we cherish and protect our constitutional rights. For those who have fully paid their debt for their crimes, they deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights.

McDonnell asked Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly to meet with stakeholders to develop procedures for administering the program.

Among those applauding McDonnell's action was Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative Republican running against former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe to replace McDonnell in November. Cuccinelli had opposed changing the law in the past, but he changed his position after the release this week of a report from the bipartisan Rights Restoration Advisory Committee he commissioned in March.

"Many people in our communities have committed certain low-level, nonviolent offenses in the past, paid their restitution and debt to society, and have gone on to live law-abiding lives," said Cuccinelli. "We needed to simplify the process for those who want to regain their civil rights so they can return to full participation in society."

Nearly 6 million U.S. citizens - 4 million of them out of prison and living and working in the community - are unable to vote because of state laws disenfranchising felons. As is the case with Virginia's, those laws have a disproportionate impact on people of color, with 13 percent of African-American men across the U.S. having lost their right to vote because of them - seven times the national average.

A study by The Sentencing Project released last year found there were three states where one-fifth or more of African Americans are disenfranchised because of felony convictions. Besides Virginia at 20 percent, they are Kentucky at 22 percent and Florida at 23 percent.

At the national level, legislation has been introduced in the last several Congresses to restore voting rights in federal elections to disenfranchised felons who've been released from prison. In the current Congress, the proposal is part of the Voter Empowerment Act of 2013, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), James Clyburn (D-S.C.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Robert Brady (D-Pa.).

While civil rights advocates are lauding McDonnell's action, some are calling on him to go further by automatically restoring voting rights to all Virginia citizens with past criminal convictions who are living and working in the community.

"Allowing Americans with past criminal convictions to have a voice in their community will reap great benefits in terms of public safety and a more robust democracy," said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

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Comments

Felons voting rights

As a veteran with combat related PTSD and 100% disability rateing, from being shot several times . Protecting our country!! I have times that I feel that my felony charges were a result of lack of not having the proper medications at the time!! I never hurt anyone or been violent! I think as a non violent who has worked hard to be the the respectable man I am today!! That no matter how much I do or contribute to my country, I'm going to loose everything I've ever had and worked so hard for because I voted!! I feel like there should be some exceptions in the law for those of us who served our time !! And live a good honest life
A wounded combat medic and haveing worked all my life to earn Respect!! This just kills me!!

Voting Rights

I do not agree with the distinction between violent and non-violent offenders with respect to restoration of civil rights such as voting. For some non-violent offenders, such as burglers, time in prison is simply a cost of doing business, and business is generally good. Many violent offenders, especially second degree murder offenders, are one-time offenders and, given a chance, are assets to the community.
Considering that most sociopaths never spend a day in jail, and that many criminals of high status never spend a day in jail, any high-minded sense of outrage at offenders who have flattened their sentences asking for the right to elect lawmakers is misplaced. Particularly so in the case of groups whose members have been targeted for incarceration in modern-day Jim Crow-type programs.

Felon Re-Enfranchisement Should Not Be Automatic

So Virginia governor Bob McDonnell has announced that he will more or less automatically restore the voting rights of “nonviolent” felons once they have fully served their sentences. But there is no reason not to consider the circumstances on a case-by-case basis before doing so – particularly by looking at the severity of the offense, how recently it was committed, and whether it was part of a series of offenses. And it makes no sense to lump all “nonviolent” offenses together, as if they were all relatively trivial. Nonviolent offenses would include being a major drug lord, treason, public corruption, voter fraud, and so forth.

If you aren’t willing to follow the law yourself, then you can’t demand a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote. The right to vote can be restored to felons, but it should be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison. After all, the unfortunate truth is that most people who walk out of prison will be walking back in. Read more about this issue on our website here [ http://www.ceousa.org/voting/voting-news/felon-voting/538-answering-the-... ] and our congressional testimony here: [ http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/pdf/Clegg100316.pdf].

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