Felons’ rights to be restored
Local officials support measure, raise questions
martinville Bulletin /associated press
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s decision to eliminate a two-year waiting period for nonviolent felons to regain their voting and other civil rights largely was met with praise from local officials and candidates Wednesday.
McDonnell’s office announced that nonviolent felons who maintain a clean record after serving their sentences will regain their voting rights and other civil liberties such as the right to hold public office and serve on juries and as notaries, according to The Associated Press.
Felons will not have to apply to have their rights restored, a spokesman for McDonnell said Wednesday, and cases will be considered individually. Previous attempts to amend the Virginia Constitution to restore civil rights to all nonviolent felons have failed in committee. McDonnell’s decision circumvents the constitutional rules by taking each felon’s case separately.
Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar said she feels “so strongly about the right to vote” that she believes once a person has paid his debt to society, his voting rights should be restored.
However, because jurors are pulled from voter lists, she is not sure what impact that may have in upcoming cases or the potential for a person to “have a vendetta against a prosecutor” after being incarcerated and returning to the community.
She also favors allowing “some time, six months maybe” to pass before rights are restored, Ziglar said, adding that she also would like to have some other points clarified, including whether McDonnell considers probation and/or parole part of a sentence.
If not, a person convicted but given probation/parole instead of jail time may not lose his voting rights under McDonnell’s plan, she said.
“I think those things need to be clarified, but I also think a person’s right to vote needs to be restored once those issues are clarified,” Ziglar said.
Andrew Nester, assistant commonwealth’s attorney and chief deputy in Henry County, said it appeared to him that McDonnell is restructuring the way nonviolent felons’ applications are handled and their rights restored, he said.
Because some jurors are selected from voting lists, Nester said “it will indeed be interesting to see how it all pans out” when McDonnell’s restructuring plan has been fully implemented for a few years.
“Once this is put into full effect, and once more felons are having their political disabilities removed from them, it would indeed change the jury pool,” he said. “This would obviously change that dramatically. Now, you are looking at people you may have convicted” or that other prosecutors in the office may have convicted.
Considering that those jurors likely would have a different perception of jail sentences, “this could definitely change the dynamics of what a jury may do with a case or how one or two people (jurors) may influence a jury,” Nester said.
Like Ziglar, Nester said he favors the current application process, and considering each person on an individual basis “was probably a better practice.”
But, McDonnell has the option to restructure the process, he said. McDonnell already 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, according to the AP.
Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, said he had favored legislative attempts to restore civil rights for nonviolent offenders that have come up in the General Assembly, but he never got a chance to vote on the issue since the measures all died in committee.
“I was disappointed they shot it down,” he said. “I thought it was the right thing to do. Violent offenders, that’s a whole different situation.”
Violent felons still will 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. McDonnell’s announcement Wednesday did not mention violent offenders.
Like Ziglar, Marshall said that while he favored returning civil rights to nonviolent offenders, he felt some waiting period was appropriate.
“I think you should have some waiting period,” he said. “I know some people who have” contacted their local representatives seeking to have their voting rights restored, he added.
“You can see if a person is going to live on the straight and narrow” after a reasonable length of time, he said. “It should be (possible) for someone who has learned their lesson” to have their rights restored, he added.
Gary Miller, a Danville Democrat who is challenging Marshall for the 14 District House seat in the November election, said he was happy about McDonnell’s move to restore rights for nonviolent felons.
“It’s an excellent idea,” and one Miller said he has talked about during his campaign.
As it is now, “an 18-year-old who committed a crime pays for it the rest of his life,” Miller said.
While campaigning, he said he met a man who held a responsible job, and Miller asked him for his support. “‘I can’t vote,’” he said the man told him. “After 20 years, he still can’t vote. These types of people need their rights restored.”
Miller added that Virginia is one of only a handful of states that do not restore rights to nonviolent felons.
“It’s the right move at the right time,” he added.
Though the announcement trumpeted the restoration of rights, no indication was made as to whether additional manpower would be needed to review more than 300,000 cases. Earlier this week, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli released a report by an advisory committee he appointed that concluded that the process could be improved by designating an executive branch agency to handle the cases.
Marshall said the most difficult thing about restoring civil rights would be to review all those applications, particularly during a state election year.
“If you do the math, you know that’s a lot of people to get through,” he said. “The devil’s in the details.”
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