RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The door opened Monday for tens of thousands of nonviolent felons in Virginia to regain the right to vote, with state officials outlining steps each will have to take to recapture their basic civil rights.
Gov. Bob McDonnell has said up to 100,000 disenfranchised felons ultimately could be added to the voter rolls, serve on a jury or hold political office.
"For past offenders, our goal is to grant civil rights back to as many as possible," McDonnell said in a statement. "This is the right thing to do for all Virginians to help make the commonwealth a safer and better place."
A former prosecutor and attorney general, McDonnell said offering past offenders to opportunity to resume their lives as productive citizens, "we can better keep them from committing another crime and returning to prison." He called that step a move to thwart "prison expansion" and to promote "smart government."
The move by Virginia is part of a national trend as states recognize that the denial of basic rights to offenders serves little societal good, said Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice.
"Legislatures across the country the country over the past 10 years have been making laws more expansive and more open," said Perez, who called Virginia's move "a welcome first step."
The task will not be easy. The state has no database of past felons and no electronic records were kept before 1995.
Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly said the "biggest challenge" has involved locating felons who have been out of the system for years or decades.
"We could easily find the felons who were currently in the system or who had previously expressed an interest in getting their rights back," Kelly said.
For the 500 to 700 felons who complete their sentences each month in the state, basic rights are to be automatically restored, provided they satisfy other requirements.
The state has added four workers to help process requests and locate others, aided by some additional funding and upgraded technology. The state will also work with such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union to reach out to nonviolent felons.
The Sentencing Project, a rights advocacy group, estimates that about 350,000 Virginians remained disenfranchised in 2010. Virginia was among six Southern states in which more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised, and one in five African-Americans are disenfranchised.
The Advancement Project, one of the groups that has worked with the state, said it was committed with them to helping spread the word. "Today marks the beginning of more Virginians having their voting and other civil rights restored than ever before," said the group's co-director, Judith Brown Dianis.
For nonviolent offenders to retain their civil rights, they must have completed their prison sentences, probation or parole; have no outstanding fines, restitution or court costs; and have no pending felony charges.
In Virginia, only the governor can restore a felon's civil rights. McDonnell had already streamlined the process and has restored the rights of more than 5,000 felons, more than any other previous administration.
While McDonnell had already eliminated a two-year waiting period for nonviolent felons, felons convicted of a violent crime will still have to wait five years and apply to regain their civil rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, while commending the governor for the progress in restoring voting rights, was critical of the pace of the state's efforts to restore rights to ex-prisoners — and other elements of the program. It said less than 10 percent of the 100,000 eligible nonviolent offenders would be able to vote in the upcoming election.
The ACLU and other advocates said the state also should work to restore the civil rights to violent offenders.
"We encourage our next governor to expand upon McDonnell's legacy and ensure that even more Virginians are eligible to vote," said Tram Nguyen of the Virginia New Majority, one group active on the issue.
The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office has a contact form on its website http://www.commonwealth.virginia.gov/ that's also available at probation and parole offices. By Aug. 1, a web-based form will allow for a direct submission of restoration or rights and a toll-free number (1-855-575-9177) has been established for those without computer access.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
Brennan Center for Justice: http://www.brennancenter.org/