Felons slow to seek restoration of rights
Some 350,000 convicted nonviolent felons became eligible to have their civil rights restored on July 15.
Two months later, only a small fraction of those eligible know about the policy. Even fewer have applied.
Gov. Bob McDonnell issued an executive order that eliminated a two-year waiting period before an application could be filed to restore rights. Now, a nonviolent felon who has completed all court-ordered conditions can apply and be automatically approved.
What this means is that eligible individuals need only register with the Secretary of the Commonwealth via mail, email or phone to have their rights to vote, serve on a jury and work as a notary public restored.
Organizations that are spreading the word about the change say that reaching those who are eligible is easier said than done.
“Virginia only has the names of people currently incarcerated, but not those who have been released. They don’t know where these people are,” said Ladelle McWhorter of Virginia Organizing, a non-partisan grass-roots group. “The thing that [the governor’s office needs] is for people to come forward.”
The state does not have a single comprehensive list of eligible nonviolent felons. So there is no efficient way to notify individuals of the rights-restoration process.
Instead, Virginia Organizing and nearly a dozen other organizations have been hosting civil rights restoration workshops around the state to increase awareness.
McWhorter, who is vice chair of Virginia Organizing’s state governing board, said that the workshops outline how rights can be restored and assist eligible individuals in filling out the necessary paperwork.
The workshops include testimonials from ex-felons like Fredericksburg resident Kevin Smith. He has yet to file his own rights restoration paperwork, but he has volunteered to get the word out to others.
He said that the executive order allows ex-felons “to finally feel like we’re a part of society again” without having to wait two years. He also said that this speedier process would keep people from reverting to negative behaviors.
“People all too often give up on trying to do the right thing and go back to what they’re familiar with because they feel alienated,” Smith said.
However, McDonnell’s executive order will remain in effect only if the next governor is willing to support it.
Gubernatorial candidates Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe have said they’ll support McDonnell’s executive order, and have individually pledged to build upon the existing foundation.
Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis could not be reached for comment, but his campaign website states a promise to “Restore voting and gun rights for those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.”
McWhorter said that hundreds of individuals had been reached through Virginia Organizing workshops, though the Governor’s Office has processed only 796 new registrations for rights restoration since July 15.
“It’s hard to give precise figures because we strongly encourage individuals in the workshop, to then do workshops,” she said. “We try to maximize our impact by having every individual spread the word to everyone else they know.”
The executive order impacts individuals convicted of nonviolent felonies who have completed their court-ordered conditions, paid all fines and have no pending felony charges.
It does not affect those convicted of violent felonies, who must wait at least five years after completing their sentences before beginning an application process. It also does not automatically restore the right to own a firearm in Virginia, which must be sought separately.
Dawnthea Price: 540/374-5444
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Civil rights restoration workshop
WHERE: Fellowship Hall, New City Fellowship of Fredericksburg, 200 Prince Edward St., Fredericksburg
WHEN: This Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
INFO: For workshop info, contact Addie Alexander, Virginia Organizing, firstname.lastname@example.org; Visit commonwealth.virginia.gov/ror for civil rights restoration options.