Much has been made lately in left-leaning circles of Frank Anderson, a Virginian who was convicted and served time for burglary in 1999. In 2008, Frank’s petition to have his voting rights restored was denied because of several speeding tickets that he received over the preceding five years.
Virginia laws regarding restoration of rights for felons are among some of the most restrictive in the nation. Frank’s denial was due to a requirement that applicants have no legal trouble for three to five years (depending on the nature of their felony) before they apply for restoration. Even after this, a felon must have his application approved by the governor, who has no set time to review or make a decision on the application.
It’s time for all this to change. And with Republicans holding all three of Virginia’s top offices, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.
During the ’09 elections, Bob McDonnell made streamlining the rights restoration process a part of his urban revitalization policies. At a community forum in Richmond, he said:
“Restoration of rights is important to those who want to become productive members of society. I believe that rights should be restored to certain non-violent felons who have met very specific requirements, demonstrated that they have maintained a clean record, and are contributing members of society. Non-violent offenders should provide proof of a consistent job history and a record of community service, in addition to the current requirements already in place. As Governor, I will utilize the power and the resources available to me to expeditiously review complete petitions for restoration of rights submitted by non-violent felons. By providing released persons with incentives to remain contributing members of society, we can decrease recidivism and hopefully lessen the burden on our jails and correctional facilities in the future.”
In fact, the RPV creed states that Virginia Republicans believe:
“That all individuals are entitled to equal rights, justice, and opportunities and should assume their responsibilities as citizens in a free society.”
Looking at this, it should be easy to apply this conservative belief to Virginia’s ex-prisoner population. The right to vote being one of the cornerstones of civic responsibility, you would think that Republicans would jump at the chance to allow more people a chance to exercise their freedoms as citizens.
Yet too often, it’s our party that leads the fight to keep ex-prisoners disenfranchised. During the 2008 presidential election, Republicans cried foul when Gov. Kaine restored the rights of many felons so that they could vote. Did Kaine make this move for partisan purposes, or just because it was the right thing to do? Arguments can be made either way. It would, however, speak very highly of the incoming Republican administration to make a quick and decisive move on making the restoration process easier-especially when little political capital would be gained or lost in doing so.
So how can we make this process easier for Virginia’s ex-prisoners?
1. Remove the requirements for restoration that don’t make good common sense. The restrictions that led to Frank’s denial are a good example of these. There should be a requirement that ex-prisoners demonstrate their willingness and ability to be responsible citizens by finishing an education program (either by obtaining a GED or completing a vocational program), maintaining employment for a year prior to applying for restoration (and two years after approval of their application), and avoiding any legal trouble that would call into question their character or judgment. Speeding tickets don’t rise to that standard.
2. Set a deadline for the governor to either approve or deny applications for rights restoration. 60-90 days should be enough for the Secretary of the Commonwealth to review an application, conduct the necessary background checks, and forward their recommendation to the governor’s office for final disposition.
Another way to stream the restoration process would be to allow the governor to create an independent commission to review and adjudicate restoration applications. This commission could consist of a member of the House of Delegates and a state Senator-from opposite parties-a former law enforcement official, a religious leader, and a member of a community program that works with ex-prisoners to help successfully re-integrate them into society. The commission would review application and make their decision by majority vote.
As a political party that prides itself on individual freedom, Virginia’s Republicans have a unique opportunity to act on an issue that will enable more of our fellow citizens to carry out the responsibilities of citizenship that we are all asked to fulfill. For those ex-prisoners who wish to contribute to our Commonwealth and have paid their societal debt for their crimes, we should make the rights restoration process as simple as possible.