Restoring Rights in Virginia

Prefiling season is here.   Two weeks ago, I filed my first set of bills for 2013.

One of the bills getting some attention is SJ 269, a proposal that I’ve spoken about several times — but never personally sponsored.

Right now, Virginia is one of the minority of states that take away voting rights permanently for citizens convicted of a felony.  The only way to be “restored” is by petition to the Governor.

What is the net effect?

Based upon the fact that there are 40,000 inmates in the state correctional system, I would estimate that at least three times that amount are ex-felons “back on the street.”  Most of them lead a law-abiding life.   (Contrary to popular perception, the rate of recidivism for ex-felons in Virginia is only 26%).

While there is a process for restoring civil rights, and Governor McDonnell has been very good about granting those petitions, only a small minority of ex-felons avail themselves.  For most, the process is too intimidating, if not humiliating.

As a result, well over 100,000 productive Virginia citizens cannot vote, serve on juries or otherwise enjoy democracy.  At the risk of stating the obvious, the effects of this policy are more pronounced in inner city Richmond than in suburban Great Falls.

Despite that, a lot of these Virginians have gone on to do some pretty impressive things, like winning the NFL MVP award in 2011.  Yes, if you can handle the obligation of quarterbacking the Eagles, you can probably handle being a voter.

Keep in mind that Virginia, like many states, has greatly expanded the category of felonies in the past 30 years.  Today, a felony can result from selling a pound of marijuana or stealing a $250 sweater.  I’m not defending either of these acts, I’m just pointing out there is a range of criminal behavior.  (All of us know a friend or relative who falls in the category of doing something really stupid when they were young.  When does the statute of limitations run on that?)

Anyway, my resolution would amend the Constitution so that felons would have their rights restored AUTOMATICALLY upon serving their time and being released.  This is the standard in many of our neighboring states.  It makes sense.

The restoration reolution has to pass both the Senate and House twice, once in 2013 and again in 2014 (with a new House).  Like any constitutional amendment, it must be approved by the voters which could happen in the fall of 2014.

This resolution has been attempted many times before.  Senator Yvonne Miller (D-Norfolk) was a noted champion.  With her passing this year, it’s a good time for a new advocate to carry the torch.  In the absence of anyone else, I’m happy to carry on her fight on this important issue.






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  • Tbailsh

    I fully support restoring the rights of some felons. Automatic, no. I will urge my legislators to oppose this bill.

    Some felonies, such as those you used as examples, are ridiculous. If you want to do something serious, change the law so those are not felonies. Ensure a person cannot become a felon unknowingly – something that is now all too easy because politicians think they must “do something” in response to a problem, and they see strengthening penalties as doing something.

    I’ve spent a good deal of my adult live as a concerned citizen trying to ensure that we do not become a society ruled by bad guys. Someone who can commit violent murders, mass shootings, wanton embezzlement in which lives are ruined, and the like is not a good guy, and I don’t want him/her deciding who makes the laws.

  • Alice Rood

    Chap, This is an excellent bill, and I wish you the best of luck. Too few non-felons vote, so I doubt that many convicted felons would take advantage of this bill. Even if that would be the case, society should encourage every act of positive engagement with the community that convicted felons choose to pursue.

    Love the Petersen family Christmas note. Ms. Petersen is an entertaining writer, and it seems like you both have your hands full with the children. Long days and short years, however, so enjoy ‘em while you got ‘em.