Virginia joins Kentucky as one of the two most restrictive states in the nation when it comes to restoring rights of felons. Both states prohibit felons from serving on juries, running for public office, or voting - for life - unless the governor restores the rights following a complicated petition process. Governor Mark Warner streamlined the process, but the final decision rests on the discretion of one person - the governor - and can vary widely depending on who is in office.
Governor Tim Kaine, believing felons who remain crime-free after conditions of their sentence have been completed, has restored civic rights to 3,598 felons. That's the most since at least the 1930s when records were first kept. Of course, right wing conspiracy nuts think this was done only to help Barack Obama carry the Old Dominion - the first Democrat do win the state's electoral votes since 1964.
Virginia's laws go back to the days of Jim Crow when it was seen as a way to disenfranchise blacks. During the debate on the 1902 Virginia Constitution, Delegate Carter Glass exclaimed:
This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years, so that in no single county... will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.
The Commonwealth's restrictive laws treat all felons as if they had committed treason - which should be the only crime for which a person should be permanently barred from civic participation.
Since 1998, nineteen states have reformed their laws on restoration of felons' rights. It is time for the Commonwealth of Virginia to join them. After completing all the terms of the sentence felons should automatically be eligible to register and vote, to serve on juries, and to hold public office. That decision should not be a burden on, or left to the whims of, the person in the Executive Mansion. Virginia's archaic laws on the rights of former felons are degrading, dehumanizing, and counterproductive. This issue should be addressed by the 2010 General Assembly.
For more information visit The Sentencing Project.