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McDonnell in hot water over nonviolent felons' rights

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; C01

RICHMOND -- For the second time in a week, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has angered black leaders and civil rights groups, this time when they learned of his plans to add another step for nonviolent felons to have their voting rights restored.

McDonnell (R) will require the offenders to submit an essay outlining their contributions to society since their release, turning a nearly automatic process into a subjective one that some say may prevent poor, less-educated or minority residents from being allowed to vote.

"It's another roadblock," Sen. Yvonne B. Miller (D-Norfolk), a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said when she was told of the change.

Miller has repeatedly introduced unsuccessful bills to allow nonviolent offenders to have their rights restored automatically. "This is designed to suppress the rights of poor people," she said.

McDonnell faced a national firestorm last week after he declared that April will be Confederate History Month without including any reference to slavery. He was rebuked by President Obama and former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder -- the nation's first African American president and its first elected African American governor, respectively -- as well as a host of state leaders, including members of the black caucus.

McDonnell later apologized and amended the proclamation, but now some of the same people who were angry about it are questioning his changes to the process of restoring voting rights.

McDonnell's administration said the essay requirement is designed to put a human face on each applicant and to help staff members better understand each person's situation.

"It gives all applicants the opportunity to have their cases heard and have their full stories told," said Janet Polarek, secretary of the commonwealth, whose office handles the requests. "It's an opportunity, not an obstacle."

McDonnell is revamping the entire system for felons to have their rights restored as he works to make good on a campaign pledge to process every application within 90 days, considerably faster than any other administration in recent history.

"Under Republican and Democratic governors, they have had to wait six to 12 months -- longer in some cases -- to get an answer," Polarek said. "Under the McDonnell administration, our goal is to restore the rights of everyone who has fulfilled their obligation in the most timely manner in Virginia's recent history."

McDonnell has not restored any felon's rights since he was sworn into office Jan. 16, although applications have started to be processed. The new process is still being developed and is several weeks away from being implemented. Polarek said she does not know whether she will need more money or staff to read the essays or speed up the process.

Under Virginia's constitution, people convicted of a felony automatically lose the rights to vote, serve on a jury and own a gun. About 300,000 felons who have served their time do not have those rights. A governor can restore those rights to felons who appear to have redeemed themselves.

Only Virginia and Kentucky require an act of the governor to restore voting rights to felons. The vast majority of states, including Maryland, automatically restore voting rights after a sentence is completed. The District allows felons to vote upon their release from prison.

In Virginia, under a system designed by then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), felons convicted of nonviolent crimes have been able to apply to have their voting rights restored by filling out a one-page form with information about their arrest and conviction.

Bernard Henderson, who served as deputy secretary of the commonwealth under Warner and his successor, Timothy M. Kaine (D), said voting rights were restored to applicants who had clean records for three years after their sentences were completed. He said that restoration was not automatic but that rights were restored to about 95 percent of those who applied.

In coming weeks, McDonnell will start requiring nonviolent offenders to write a letter to him explaining the circumstances of their arrest; their efforts to get a job, seek an education and participate in church and community activities; and why they believe their rights should be restored. Some applicants already have been notified that letters will be required.

Groups that work with felons to help restore their rights worry that applicants will be intimidated by the essay and will not bother to apply.

"The governor may be able to fulfill his campaign promise to process applications more quickly, but if there are fewer applications due to more onerous requirements, there will still be fewer individuals having their rights restored,'' said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Polarek said that if applicants had trouble with the essay, they could have a lawyer or someone else write it for them; they could even call her office for help. She said her office would hold a meeting with the ACLU, churches and other groups that work with felons to explain the process.

Applicants will be judged on whether they have fulfilled their sentences and are contributing members of society, according to McDonnell administration officials. Decisions will be made by the secretary of the commonwealth's office and the office of the governor's counsel. McDonnell will not review the cases.

Felons who commit violent or drug-distribution crimes have to wait five years to apply to have their rights restored in Virginia. They have to fill out a longer form, submit reference letters and certified copies of court documents, and write a letter to the governor. That process will not change. McDonnell will review those cases, as other governors have.

Before Warner's changes, the same process applied to nonviolent offenders.

Kaine restored the civil rights of a record 4,402 felons during his term, and Warner restored rights to 3,486. Republican predecessors James S. Gilmore III and George Allen restored rights to 238 and 460 felons, respectively.

In the past, Republicans have asserted that Democratic governors have restored voting rights to more felons than have Republican governors because felons are more likely to vote for Democrats.

About 650 cases remained open when Kaine left office, according to Christie Heath, McDonnell's deputy secretary of the commonwealth. Since McDonnell's inauguration, Heath said applications have been received from 213 nonviolent and 55 violent offenders, although 93 were returned because they were incomplete.

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