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Bipartisan effort seeks to restore felons' civil rights

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By Landmark News Service

UPDATE 1/15/13:

RICHMOND — Legislation endorsed by Gov. Bob McDonnell to return civil rights to nonviolent felons emerged from a Virginia Senate subcommittee without a recommendation Tuesday.

A motion to recommend the bill failed on a 3-3 vote, with all of the votes against the measure coming from McDonnell’s fellow Republicans. The tie vote was enough to keep the measure alive for the full Privileges and Elections Committee.

“Someone steals $200 and permanently loses his voting rights. I think that’s just too much,” said Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who testified in favor of the bill.
One Republican who voted against the measure, complained that it includes no mechanism to ensure that felons aren’t facing new charges before their voting rights are restored.

McDonnell’s policy director, Jeff Palmore, urged the subcommittee to endorse the legislation.
“This is something the governor feels personally very strong about,” he said.

The governor still has time to twist arms, although the overwhelming rejection of the proposal by the House subcommittee suggests the odds of success are long.

If the measure does pass, it will have to be approved again by the 2014 General Assembly before going to the voters in a referendum.

 

ORIGINAL STORY:
RICHMOND — Despite support from Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a GOP-controlled subcommittee in the House of Delegates has defeated legislation that would establish an automatic process for non-violent felons to regain their civil rights.
On a voice vote, the subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee rejected a proposed constitutional amendment just five days after McDonnell made an appeal for it in his State of the Commonwealth address.
A McDonnell cabinet officer and Cuccinelli testified in support of a constitutional change during a lengthy hearing in an overcrowded conference room Monday morning.
Lawmakers from both parties — including Del. Onzlee Ware (D-Roanoke) and Del. Greg Habeeb (R-Salem) — introduced bills to create an automatic restoration process for non-violent offenders who have completed their sentencing, probation and restitution requirements.
“I am very disappointed in today’s vote against these constitutional amendments,” McDonnell said in a statement issued by his office. “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.
“As a nation that embraces second chances and believes in redemption, we want more productive citizens and fewer people returning to prison. Automatic restoration of constitutional rights will help reintegrate individuals back into society and prevent future crimes, which means fewer victims and a safer Virginia.”
The House subcommittee’s vote does not end debate on the issue for this General Assembly session because constitutional amendments have been introduced in the Senate. But unless Republicans on the House subcommittee change their minds, the proposal won’t go far in the House even if it passes the Senate.
Virginia is one of only four states that require felons to apply to the governor to have their voting rights and certain other civil rights restored. McDonnell has fast-tracked the process during his administration and approved more than 4,400 applicants, more than any of his predecessors.
Del. Jackson Miller (R-Prince William County), the chairman of the subcommittee, said McDonnell has established an efficient process that likely will be replicated by his successors. But supporters of an automatic process, including McDonnell, said the restoration of rights should not be left to the whims of future chief executives.
Miller, the other Republican subcommittee members and Del. Johnny Joannou (D-Portsmouth) voted against an automatic restoration process for non-violent offenders. Only Del. Algie Howell (D-Norfolk), voted for the bill.
Joannou and Howell voted for a separate bill that would apply to all felons, including violent offenders, but the panel’s Republican members also voted against that bill.
Habeeb said he was disappointed by the subcommittee’s rejection but optimistic that a constitutional amendment eventually will pass.
“There is a great diversity of thought in the House of Delegates,” Habeeb said. “I very much appreciate the genuine concerns of those opposed to my legislation. I look forward to continuing the conversation with my colleagues to solve this important issue.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) joined in voicing disappointment with the vote.
Warner streamlined the executive branch process of restoring voting rights while serving as governor from 2002 to 2006.
“It is very disappointing that this bipartisan legislation has been blocked at the starting point of a two-year process that would allow Virginia voters to weigh in on a commonsense step already in place in virtually every other state,” Warner said in a news release on Monday.
Cuccinelli issued a statement Monday, as well: “I have long railed against politicians ratcheting up several low-level, nonviolent offenses from misdemeanors to felonies — what I call ‘felony creep.’
“Many lower-level offenses should not result in the permanent loss of civil rights for individuals. That’s why we ought to make it easier for those who have committed certain nonviolent offenses and served their punishment to regain their place in society.”