Restoration of rights should be automatic

Why must some Virginians be forced to pay for life for a mistake made years before? After time served, we deserve a new beginning.

April 21, 2023 12:03 am

Duane Edwards, a former inmate who now is a Virginia Organizing board member, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Square in opposition to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s rights restoration policies. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

By Duane Edwards and Barbara Harris for Virginia Organizing

We want Gov. Glenn Youngkin to bring back the Restoration of Rights process that previous governors of both parties developed over the 13 years before he took office. It was a simple, fluid process that resulted in tens of thousands of returning citizens getting their rights back. Gov. Youngkin has slowed that down to a trickle even though his administration’s Secretary of the Commonwealth, Kay Coles James, claimed last year that their priority was to make the process more efficient.

We, the authors of this column, both served time in prison years ago, but after we came home we wanted to return to our communities and contribute. We knew that one way to do that was to get our civil rights restored. Back then you had to fill out a 13-page application, get three letters of recommendation, and then, if it was denied, they didn’t tell you why, and you couldn’t apply again for a year. Only a few thousand people succeeded in getting their rights back each year while tens of thousands waited with no assurance that they would ever succeed.

Throughout the 20th century, most returning citizens were unable to secure decent jobs and housing, vote, or live with dignity in Virginia. As soon as they were released, they met with prejudice, especially if they were people of color, and they were shut out of public life. That’s why Virginia Organizing held our first Restoration of Rights workshop in 1999, to teach returning citizens how to apply. Along with many other groups, we met with every governor after that to ask them to improve the process, and they did. 

Our chapters register voters every year. Under former Gov. Northam, whenever a formerly incarcerated person told us they couldn’t vote, we could explain to them that they could get their rights back. We could explain the criteria and the steps they had to take. We could pull up the website with the simple application and help them fill it out. And we could feel confident that in about two months, their rights would be restored. We would follow up with them to help them register to vote in time for the next election.  

Then Virginia passed the automatic restoration constitutional amendment for the first time and passed the Virginia Voting Rights Act in 2021. Suddenly, Virginia led the nation in civil rights progress. But all the forward strides we’ve made are daily being pushed back to where we started from.

Why must a fellow Virginian be forced to pay for life for a mistake made years before? After time served, we deserve a new beginning. In many cases decades have passed and we’re still being penalized. Most returning citizens are just average people, looking for a second chance at a normal life.

Why must a fellow Virginian be forced to pay for life for a mistake made years before? After time served, we deserve a new beginning.

– Duane Edwards and Barbara Harris

We both have children. We taught them that when you make a mistake, you apologize and do what you can to make it right again and then you will be forgiven. We don’t hold their mistakes against them every day forever. This is what we teach our kids, so why are we treating each other like this, with this new policy?

As returning citizens who had the good fortune to benefit from the Restoration Program, we have been able to move forward and become advocates and activists through Virginia Organizing for men and women who are going through what we endured. It has been a blessing to be an integral part of the movement. We want that for every returning citizen. 

Let’s all take a stand for our rights and join together to fight the bias against returning citizens, especially people of color. We will take the fight to the community, the city, and the state to help make sure Virginia continues to lead the nation in its commitment to civil rights.


Virginia Organizing is a non-partisan statewide grassroots organization dedicated to challenging injustice by empowering people in local communities to address issues that affect the quality of their lives. Duane Edwards and Barbara Harris are members of Virginia Organizing’s State Governing Board.


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