Restoring rights a good gubernatorial move, but automatic restoration would be better

May 26, 2022 12:01 am

Gov. Glenn Youngkin greets lawmakers at the Capitol as he arrives to deliver his first State of the Commonwealth address. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Former felons in Virginia, if they want to become better citizens, should be heartened. 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin just announced he’s restored civil rights, including voting, to nearly 3,500 people since he took office in January. The move continues a less-cumbersome process initiated by his predecessors, both Democratic and Republican.

“I thought it was amazing in five months that more than 3,400 people” got their rights back, Sandra Brandt, executive director of Norfolk-based STEP-UP, told me. The agency assists former prisoners from local, state and federal institutions with employment and other services.

The guv’s action is welcome – though he should’ve done even more. 

Youngkin didn’t mount a public campaign urging fellow Republicans in the state House of Delegates, who control the chamber, to pass legislation amending the state Constitution. The change likely would’ve led to automatic restoration upon release, thus ending the current process in the commonwealth of rights restoration only decided by the governor. 

It’s a system that’s extremely rare among the 50 states, and it’s among the most restrictive in the country. Only Virginia and a few other states require their governors to restore felons’ voting rights after individuals petition the change, according to a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

The procedure here dates to the racist underpinnings of the 1901-02 state constitutional convention, in which delegates dashed Black voting rights in Virginia with felon disenfranchisement, literacy tests and poll taxes. It was a quarter-century after Reconstruction ended. 

Only felon disenfranchisement remains today.

To amend the Constitution, the General Assembly must pass legislation two years in a row, with an election in between. Then the clause must win approval from voters in a referendum. 

The House and Senate, both under Democratic control, passed the legislation in 2021. The Senate passed its version this year, but the House – now with a GOP majority – killed the bill in a subcommittee. That move prevented a vote by the full chamber.

Youngkin, through his spokeswoman, declined comment about the amendment and whether he’d exhorted House Republicans to pass the legislation.

I’m not surprised by the roadblock erected by the GOP. That doesn’t make it right.

Because Black and brown people overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, and are disproportionately represented behind bars, Republicans view easing the restoration process as helping their opponents. 

As an aside, people of color also are treated more harshly than Whites for the same crimes. As the American Bar Association noted: “The criminal justice system’s pervasive problems with racism start before the first contact and continue through pleas, conviction, incarceration, release and beyond.”

Regaining the right to vote, holding public office, and serving on a jury or as a notary are ways of bringing convicts back into the mainstream. Such actions enable onetime felons to become more invested in their communities. 

All of that should supersede craven political calculations. 

“I am encouraged that over 3,400 Virginians will take this critical first step towards vibrant futures as citizens with full civil rights,” Youngkin said in a statement. “Individuals with their rights restored come from every walk of life and are eager to provide for themselves, their families and put the past behind them for a better tomorrow.”

There’s no argument about that. But if Youngkin truly feels that way, he should’ve used the bully pulpit to support the amendment.

Sen. Mamie Locke, sponsor of the legislation and a Hampton Democrat, applauded the restorations but criticized the governor’s lack of leadership. “He wants to be the sole decision maker in whether individuals have paid their debt to society,” Locke said by email.

She also cited Del. Karen Greenhalgh, who was a sponsor of the House version but voted against it in the subcommittee. The Virginia Beach Republican, a first-term delegate, didn’t respond to my requests for comment. 

I can only imagine what changed Greenhalgh’s mind – and whether veteran legislators influenced her once-bipartisan stance on the issue. 

Locke said she’ll continue to introduce the legislation so the state is no longer one in which there’s a “draconian process of the governor restoring the rights of citizens who have paid their debts to society.”

The state annually publishes a list of pardons and other forms of clemency that’s sent to the General Assembly. The crimes that onetime felons committed, and the length of time it took for them to regain rights, are striking. 

Many were guilty of nonviolent offenses decades ago. Others had drug offenses, yet they did their time and deserve a chance to do better. What you don’t find are a lot of convictions for rape, manslaughter or murder.

In the most recent list published under then-Gov. Ralph Northam, ending Jan. 15, you can learn of the following people who regained their civil rights:

A man sentenced for larceny in 1996 in Fairfax County. A woman sentenced for a form of fraud in 1984 in Virginia Beach. A man sentenced for forgery in 1975 in Richmond County. 

A woman sentenced for LSD distribution in 1972 in Virginia Beach. Heck, I was still in middle school back then.

I tried to reach several of the former felons to learn why it took them so long to try to regain their rights, or whether they had tried previously without success. None returned my calls or attempts to locate them on social media. 

Maybe they simply didn’t want to be reminded of their decades-old crimes. Or perhaps younger relatives don’t know about their past offenses and their time behind bars, and they feared new publicity. 

They shouldn’t have to ask the governor’s blessing to regain key rights. 

If Youngkin really wants to help disenfranchised felons, he can lead the charge to amend the state constitution. Sen. Locke, and many others, would appreciate the initiative.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]