Non-violent felons to regain civil rights

Jordan Crawford | 8/15/2013, 9:57 a.m.
A group of community workers recent met to determine how felons could restore their civil rights.
Gov. McDonnell pictured with NAACP’s Ben Jealous and Kemba Smith after the governor announced the automatic restoration of voting and civil rights on individualized basis for non-violent felons. Michaele White

Last Wednesday, in a small room at the Northampton Community Center, a group of community workers and felons sat to determine how the latter could restore their civil rights.

On May 29, Governor McDonnell announced that he would implement an automatic restoration process, within the confines of Virginia law, to non-violent felons who have completed their sentence of probation or parole; have paid off all court costs, fines, and restitution; have completed other court-ordered conditions; and have no pending felony charges.

The announcement came a day after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli beckoned for changes to the restoration of rights to non-violent felons. Democrats had accused Cuccinelli of being indecisive on the issue while running for governor in the 2013 election.

Previously, non-violent felons had to apply through an application process. Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth, Jennifer Aulgur, said a man once asked a former Virginia governor if he could have his voting rights restored. “After completing the application and waiting 19 months, he received a ‘no,’” she said, at the Wednesday meeting.

McDonnell realized this was absurd and immediately enforced a 90-day decision and response period, stating that there should be an easier way.

In addition, the governor tasked the Secretary of the Commonwealth to work with stakeholders, affected state agencies and other appropriate organizations to develop a smooth transition from an application system to an automatic system, with an announcement of the administrative processes to be made July 15th.

Prior to this, Virginia was one of only a few states that required that a felon petition the Governor for the restoration of civil rights.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly said, "Having stakeholder and state agency collaboration was invaluable in solving the complex challenges of transitioning to an automatic restoration of rights system. The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office had been working internally on the transition for several months, but there were several significant obstacles for which we needed creative solutions.”

The office’s biggest challenge was locating felons who had been out of the legal system for years or even decades.

“We could easily find the felons who were currently in the system or who had previously expressed an interest in getting their rights back,” said Kelly. “However, there is no accurate comprehensive database of felons who are not currently in the legal or corrections system and have been released from probation. The stakeholder group helped us to find creative solutions to meet that challenge."

So, what is a non-violent crime? Governor McDonnell’s list includes: bank fraud, identity theft, grand larceny, breaking and entering without a deadly weapon, forgery, and driving under the influence beyond the third offense. A complete listing of non-violent crimes is available on the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website.

Although McDonnell’s plan stretches his authority to the limits of its constitutional bounds – only the governor can restore voting rights under the law – it isn’t a permanent change. That would require an amendment to the state constitution, which would be subject to voter approval after it cleared the General Assembly.