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RICHMOND — A House of Delegates subcommittee has rejected an attempt to amend the Virginia Constitution to allow automatic restoration of civil rights to nonviolent felons once they complete their criminal sentences.
The House panel’s action signals that it is unlikely to be enacted this year in the General Assembly.
That means Virginia will remain one of two states — Kentucky is the other — that set the highest bar in the nation for felons to regain their rights of citizenship.
In Virginia, felons must apply to the governor to restore their rights. Gov. Bob McDonnell and his two immediate predecessors, Mark Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, have streamlined the process and restored more felons’ rights than any previous governors. But witnesses told the subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee that more than 300,000 Virginians are still denied their rights.
Five delegates introduced constitutional amendments authorizing the General Assembly to provide for automatic restoration of rights by general law. The measures would have allowed felons to vote, serve on juries, run for public office and become a notary public.
All were rejected by the Republican-dominated panel, drawing support only from Del. Lionell Spruill, (D-Chesapeake).
Del. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond), one of the bill's sponsors, told the panel that restoration of rights is important to felons as a public affirmation that they have paid their debt to society and are full citizens again. Denial of their rights is a “scarlet letter” that marks them as something less, he said.
“What they want back is their dignity,” Morrissey said. That point was echoed by several felons who spoke to the panel. They said they had been denied or lost jobs because of their criminal records and believed that it might not have happened had they had their rights restored.
“Let’s be candid about why we have this law,” Morrissey said, referring to Virginia’s current restrictions on felons’ civil rights. “It’s a vestige of Jim Crow. Its purpose was to disenfranchise African Americans.”
That drew an angry response from Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania County), a member of the panel.
“I’m sick of this Jim Crow stuff, I really am,” Cole said. “The current law applies to all felons, not just African Americans. Whenever somebody’s at the end of their logical arguments, they play the race card.”