Virginia Gov. McDonnell speeds rights-restoration process for nonviolent felons

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

RICHMOND -- Nonviolent felons must now wait two years, instead of three, after completing their sentences to apply to have their right to vote restored in Virginia, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell announced Thursday as he outlined a faster rights-restoration process.

McDonnell (R) pledged that his office will act on applications from felons wanting to have their civil rights restored within 60 days of receiving the necessary paperwork from courts and other agencies, a significant acceleration of the process from past governors. And he said he would form a work group to find ways to get courts and probation officers to submit the necessary documents more quickly, a traditional hang-up of the process.

"We believe this will create a much fairer and faster way of having people's rights restored," McDonnell said. "I believe in second chances. I believe people ought to have the ability to be reintegrated into society after they have served time that may have been imposed and otherwise paid all of their debts to society."

In 39 states, voting rights are automatically returned to felons who have completed their sentences. Only Kentucky and Virginia permanently revoke rights upon conviction and leave restoration entirely at the discretion of the governor.

McDonnell faced withering criticism from civil rights groups and others after about 200 nonviolent felons who had applied for rights restoration since he took office Jan. 16 received a notice from his office indicating that he was instituting a new policy requiring them to write a letter explaining their community involvement and justifying their request. Felon advocates said the letter would discourage felons from applying. McDonnell's office later said the request was sent to applicants in error.

The new policy asks nonviolent felons to offer a "brief description of civic or community involvement" but does not require a free-form letter. McDonnell said many applicants already submit such information as a way to boost their chances of success. But he said applications filed with the question left blank will not be considered incomplete, nor will a non-answer necessarily result in a rejection.

"We'll just assume they don't have anything to say," he said.

Violent felons have long had to write such a letter and must also wait five years before applying for rights restoration.

Of 650 applications left over for consideration from the administration of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and 400 that McDonnell has received since taking office, the governor said he has restored the rights of 175 felons. He said he will act on all remaining Kaine-era applications by July 15 and promised to stick to his new 60-day deadline for new applicants -- although he said it is not legally binding.

"The prior process was embarrassing," McDonnell said. "Waiting six months or a year or more to get an answer was unacceptable."

The announcement was generally praised by rights advocates, who said they appreciated the high-level attention McDonnell has given to the issue.

Still, they said their goal is to restore voting and other civil rights to more of Virginia's approximately 300,000 felons, not just to restore those rights more quickly.

Del. Kenneth Cooper Alexander (D-Norfolk), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said his members would continue to work for a constitutional amendment to make rights restoration automatic upon completion of a sentence.

Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was pleased that McDonnell had endorsed the idea that voting rights can help felons reintegrate into society.

But he said he would ask the governor's office to state clearly on the application for nonviolent felons that the new question about community service is not required.

"The restoration process should not be dependent on community service or other similar activities," he said. "But if a blank in that space is not going to be used against an applicant, it shouldn't be much of a problem."

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