Va. Republicans Reject Restoration of Civil Rights for Nonviolent Felons

Gov. Bob McDonnell's plea for legislation to automatically restore the civil rights of nonviolent felons has been rejected by fellow Republicans in the House of Delegates.

A GOP-dominated House subcommittee killed the legislation Monday, less than a week after McDonnell surprised lawmakers by urging them to support the legislation. Democrats have championed automatic restoration of rights for years.

The bill would have started a process that would eventually have led to a referendum in the commonwealth.

McDonnell issued a statement saying he was "very disappointed."

"Once individuals have served their time, and paid their fines, restitution, and other costs, they should have the opportunity to rejoin society as fully contributing members," he said in the statement. "As a nation that embraces second chances and believes in redemption, we want more productive citizens and fewer people returning to prison."

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who testified before the subcommittee Monday morning in support of restoration of rights, also expressed disappointment with the subcommittee vote.

"I will continue to keep up the fight on this important issue," he said. "I would welcome the opportunity to testify before members of the senate in an effort to underscore the importance of the restoration of civil rights to these individuals. I encourage other members of the General Assembly to join me in this important fight."

Del. Charnielle Herring of Alexandria, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party and one of the sponsors of the legislation, said she was disappointed that Republicans rejected what she says has become a nonpartisan proposal.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said it was "very disappointing that this bipartisan legislation has been blocked at the starting point."

And the House Democratic caucus was quick to condemn the subcommittee, issuing a statement just before 11 a.m.

“The defeat of these bills, several of which were supported by the Governor, is very sad," said Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville).

"It is yet another example of how the House Republican leadership seeks to limit transparent debate on critical issues by scheduling hearings in subcommittees on very short notice at times when it is difficult for Virginia citizens to attend."

"This allows them to conduct business out of the public eye, and permits a small number of members to control the outcome," Toscano said.

Virginia and Kentucky are the only states that permanently strip felons of those rights. In Virginia, the power to restore those rights lies solely with the governor. Several lawmakers from both parties submitted legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore nonviolent felons' rights to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury.

McDonnell has made good on a pledge to accelerate the process, setting a nonbinding 60-day deadline for administration officials to make recommendations on petitions. When he endorsed making the process automatic in his State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday night, McDonnell also said his administration has restored the rights of more than 4,400 felons, beating the record set by his predecessor, Democrat Tim Kaine.

But according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reform and alternatives to prison, about 350,000 Virginia felons who have completed their sentences -- including any probation and payment of any fines -- still are barred from voting. That's second only to Florida's 1.3 million.

Legislators from both parties have lauded McDonnell's efforts to expedite the procedure, but many Republicans have said they preferred to maintain the current requirement of a case-by-case review.

“Some think we should restore felons' rights, but they should have to ask for it, which is essentially what we have now,” said Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem and another sponsor of the legislation.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said most first-time, nonviolent felons “pay no debt to society at all” because they are just put on probation.

“These are folks who haven't exhibited much personal responsibility in their lives at all,” Gilbert said in a speech on the House floor. He said requiring those citizens to petition for restoration of their rights is not too much to ask.

Legislators have repeatedly rejected automatic restoration over the past several years, and Habeeb said “institutional inertia” also played a role in Monday's vote. He said he was not surprised by the outcome, but is optimistic that the tide is turning.

“Every time we have this conversation it advances the ball a little bit,” Habeeb said.

However, nobody will know how many Republicans in the GOP-controlled House would have supported the proposal because internal rules allow subcommittees to kill legislation. By rejecting the measure, the subcommittee spared the full House a recorded floor vote on the issue in a year when all 100 delegate seats are up for election.

“At the very least, the House Republican leadership should have afforded a governor of their own party the courtesy of a full hearing on the House floor on this very important issue, which has implications for large numbers of Virginia residents,” Toscano said in a written statement.

Similar legislation is pending in the evenly divided, 40-member Senate. But even if it passes there, as expected, Monday's lopsided vote in the House subcommittee means the measure is likely dead for this session.

Constitutional amendments must be passed twice by the General Assembly, with a House election in between, before being presented to the voters. If the Legislature does not pass the measure this year, the earliest it could appear on the ballot is November 2016.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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