RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Nonviolent felons who finish serving their sentences and maintain a clean record after that will regain their right to vote and other civil rights on an individual basis without having to apply, Gov. Bob McDonnell said Wednesday.
McDonnell also is eliminating a two-year waiting period for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes to have their civil rights restored. Previously, they also had to apply; cases will now be automatically considered without an application.
“It really is a personal thing,” McDonnell said at a news conference at a church near downtown Richmond. “I believe in an America of second chances.”
The Republican governor was joined on stage by civil rights advocates and legislators from both parties, including members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, who have pressed for years to reform the state’s strict process for restoring felons’ rights.
“This is an important day,” NAACP national president Benjamin Todd Jealous told a room packed with members of progressive organizations that have lobbied on the issue. “This is what the nation yearns for.”
In Virginia, only the governor can restore felons’ rights. McDonnell already has streamlined the process and has restored the rights of more than 4,800 felons, more than any previous administration, but the Sentencing Project says about 350,000 Virginians who have completed their sentences remained disenfranchised in 2010. Thousands of those residents could become registered voters in time for the November election as a result of McDonnell’s new policy.
Violent felons will still have to wait five years and apply to regain their rights to vote, hold public office, and serve on a jury and as a notary public.
The announcement came a day after Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli released a report by an advisory committee he appointed in March to study restoration of rights. The panel concluded that the process could be improved by designating an executive branch agency to do all the legwork, working with religious and community groups to solicit and process applications for the governor’s consideration. Cuccinelli said he liked the idea of outside help but preferred to keep the program in the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office.
Cuccinelli’s task force said the Virginia Constitution does not allow the governor to issue an executive order restoring all felons’ rights, and McDonnell’s new policy stops short of that by continuing to handle each case individually.
“I wanted to use the maximum authority I had,” McDonnell told reporters. “An executive order is probably beyond the scope of my authority.”
He said the new process will eliminate subjectivity.
“Your civil rights in this country should not be dependent on the whims of one person,” he said.