Virginia nonviolent felons remain in limbo on restoration of civil rights

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010; B01

RICHMOND -- Linwood Christian, 43, a nonviolent felon who left prison in 2002, thought he had done everything he needed to have his civil rights restored when he filled out a simple one-page application in January.

But two months later, he received a notice from Virginia requiring that he write a personal letter to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) explaining why he thought his rights should be restored after a pair of felony convictions.

The busy single dad says he was frustrated at the new hurdle but typed up one page and faxed it the day before the deadline. He has heard nothing since, with his application apparently caught in what has become an uncertain process.

This year, more than 200 nonviolent felons received a notice from the secretary of the commonwealth requiring that they write such a letter to the governor by April 1. In mid-April, McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin told The Washington Post that the notices had been sent in error, but applicants said last week they had not been told that they were a mistake. Martin said 95 percent of those who received the request wrote letters by the deadline.

Janet Polarek, secretary of the commonwealth, and the governor's office declined to say why the applicants have not been told the letters were sent by mistake or whether the letters received will be considered, nor would they answer any other questions about the rights restoration process.

"The governor's policy on restoration of rights will be announced in May," McDonnell spokeswoman Stacey Johnson said. "We will have more specifics on this issue at that time."

In 39 states, including Maryland, and the District, voting rights are automatically restored after a felon completes a prison sentence, probation or parole. But under Virginia's constitution, people convicted of a felony automatically lose the right to vote, serve on a jury or own a gun. A governor can restore those rights to felons who appear to have redeemed themselves.

McDonnell is overhauling the restoration system as he tries to figure out how to deliver on a campaign promise to process every application within 90 days, considerably faster than any other administration in recent history.

The governor is considering a host of changes, including requiring nonviolent felons to submit a letter to him outlining their contributions to society since their release. But he has faced a barrage of criticism from black legislators and civil rights groups who say that poor, less educated or minority residents would be unable or unlikely to write the letter.

McDonnell inherited about 650 open cases from former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D). In early April, officials in the secretary of the commonwealth's office said they had received new applications from 213 nonviolent and 55 violent offenders, although 93 were returned because they were incomplete. McDonnell has not restored any felon's rights since he was sworn into office Jan. 16, according to various groups working with felons to get their rights restored that have been in contact with the secretary of the commonwealth's office.

James Bailey, regional director of the Hampton Roads Missing Voter Project, which encourages felons to get their rights restored, said applicants were angry with him for urging them to fill out an application after they received the request for additional information. And now potential applicants don't trust him when he tells them that it's a simple process, he said.

Letters to McDonnell

In Christian's letter, he told the governor that he had stolen money from the Disabled American Veterans thrift store where he worked so he could get high but turned himself in to police the next morning. He wrote that he works as a case manager for a nonprofit group in Petersburg that helps HIV/AIDS patients, serves as the president of the PTA at his 14-year-old son's school and attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

"Why would restoring my rights be justified?" he wrote. "My faith in a system that everyone told me doesn't work for me, especially being a black man, would be restored."

In February, David Goodman, 42, of Chesapeake received notice that if he didn't write a letter by April 1, his application would be closed. Goodman said he forced himself to write a few paragraphs -- less than a page -- because he had been told that having his rights restored might help him land a job with the military. He had spent most of his adult life working on Navy ships, but he said tighter security since the 2001 terrorist attacks has made it tough for him to find a job.

"I didn't want to do it," he said. "The letter made it sound like they were denying me already. But I think it will help me get a job."

In his letter, Goodman told McDonnell about the circumstances of his two drug possession charges in 1991 and 1999, what jobs he has been able to get since his sentence was completed, his work coaching youth sports teams and his attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

'Nothing has happened'

Spencer Moore, 33, of Newport News said he applied to regain his rights as soon as he was eligible in September, hoping to vote in last year's governor's race. But the application wasn't processed before Kaine left office, and now Moore, who was convicted of a third DUI, is waiting for McDonnell to act. He said he was not asked to write a letter to the governor and has not heard from the state about his application.

Moore, who works in medical billing, said he was disappointed he couldn't vote in his city's election this month.

"I don't know if it is being reviewed or not," Moore said of the application. "This is an election year. . . . I don't know what's taking so long."

Polarek met April 14 with the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants and other groups to talk about changes the governor's office is making to the process.

"As much as we appreciate Secretary Polarek's willingness to reach out to us, it has been nearly four months since McDonnell took office, and nothing has happened," said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia branch of the ACLU. "Not only is the interim restoration process still a mystery, but we have yet to see any plans for permanent changes."

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