McAuliffe expands rights restoration

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 6/26/2015, 11:44 p.m. | Updated on 6/26/2015, 11:44 p.m.
Eric Branch still owes the state government more than $9,000 in court costs and fees from a 1988 felony conviction …

Eric Branch still owes the state government more than $9,000 in court costs and fees from a 1988 felony conviction that sent him to prison for nearly five years.

But that debt no longer will keep him from voting.

In a major policy change, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is lifting the money barrier that has kept released felons like Mr. Branch from regaining the right to vote and having their other civil rights restored.

Going far beyond any other Virginia chief executive, Gov. McAuliffe announced Tuesday he would restore the rights of such people to cast a ballot, run for office, serve on juries and become a notary no matter how much they still owe.

Estimates suggest that up to 350,000 Virginia adults are barred from voting because of felony records, with the largest share unable to get their rights restored because they have unpaid court debts, including fines, court costs, fees and restitution to victims.

“These men and women will still be required to pay their costs and fees,” the governor said, “but their court debts will no longer serve as a financial barrier to voting, just as poll taxes did for so many years in Virginia.”

In addition, he will offer those whose rights are restored the option to have a notation of that action added to their criminal records.

The governor’s new policy, which drew immediate bipartisan praise, embraces a recommendation that the Virginia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union advanced to ensure swifter restoration of rights of felons.

Levar M. Stoney, the member of the governor’s cabinet who oversees the restoration of rights program, said the governor found the change warranted after realizing that felons are the only group whose debts can keep them from voting.

“People who owe back taxes can still vote,” said Mr. Stoney, who serves as secretary of the commonwealth, and so can others who have debts and judgments to the governent.

He said the policy change could result in an avalanche of applications from people who want their rights restored.

“I may need more staff,” he said, “but that’s a good thing.”

Virginia is among 12 states with the most restrictive laws governing the restoration of civil rights for felons and has the fourth highest rate of felony disenfranchisement in the country, according to the governor’s office. Only the governor is empowered to restore rights.

The governor’s policy shift comes as close as a governor can come to automatically restoring rights of felons without first changing the state’s constitution.

Like his predecessors, Gov. McAuliffe has not been able to win General Assembly approval for automatic restoration of rights of felons upon the completion of their sentence, including supervised probation or parole, although that fight is expected to continue.

While the next governor could throw out the new McAuliffe policy, that would not impact anyone whose rights Gov. McAuliffe restores.

The policy change expands the governor’s already aggressive approach to restoring rights and builds on the efforts to streamline the process that began under his predecessor, former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who began the push to provide felons a second chance.

Since taking office 17 months ago, Gov. McAuliffe already has restored the rights of 8,250 people — more than any other governor in state history, including Mr. McDonnell.

He has continued the McDonnell process of making rights restoration virtually automatic for nonviolent felons, but went further in classifying drug offenders as nonviolent.

He also has reduced the waiting period from five years to three years for felons classified as violent to apply for rights restoration. He also cut the 13-page application to one page, “ending the bewildering tangle of red tape.”

Mr. Branch, who operates a landscaping business in Chesterfield County, learned he still had court debts when he tried to apply for restoration of his rights a few years ago and was rejected.

The governor restored Mr. Branch’s civil rights and those of two other people when he announced the policy change at a news conference at Boaz & Ruth, a faith-based Richmond nonprofit that provides job training, housing and other services to people who have served their time and are trying to rebuild their lives.

His announcement was greeted with shouts and applause from the several dozen activists and others gathered for the news conference in Highland Park on North Side. A few people shed tears.

An emotional Mr. Branch thanked God and said the restoration of his rights means he will be able to “move forward without having to look in the rearview mirror.”

Richard Walker, who previously had his rights restored and now leads a felon advocacy group called Bridging the Gap in Virginia, said the governor’s announcement was a surprise. “I’m ecstatic,” he said.

Mr. Stoney said his office immediately will begin reconsidering applications that were rejected since Gov. McAuliffe took office in January 2014. Others whose applications were rejected for failure to pay court costs, fines and fees before January 2014 would need to send in a new request, he said.

Hampton Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke, chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, is among those who publicly applauded the governor “for taking aggressive action to put Virginia at the forefront” of restoring rights. The caucus unsuccessfully has championed automatic restoration of rights.

Henrico Sen. A. Donald McEachin, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, also commended the governor for keeping his campaign promise to champion restoration of rights.

“Individuals who have paid their debt to society and are working to be constructive, productive members of their communities should have the opportunity to be full participants,” Sen. McEachin said.

Republican Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel of Loudoun County also praised the governor and those whose rights he restored for their “courage and hard work in pursuit of this opportunity.”

Henrico Republican Delegate Peter Farrell also cheered. “The importance of participation in voting and civic engagement cannot be undervalued,” he said. “It is a good thing for the commonwealth that many of our citizens are being granted a second chance after serving their debt to society.”

For more details, go to https://commonwealth.virginia.gov/judicial-system/restoration-of-rights/