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Va. Gov. McDonnell leads way in restoring ex-cons’ rights

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RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, in the first two years of his term, has restored the voting rights of more than 2,500 ex-convicts — putting the former prosecutor and state attorney general on pace to eclipse both of his Democratic predecessors.

Mr. McDonnell, who on the campaign trail promised to enact the "fastest and fairest" rights-restoration process in Virginia history, has been living up to his pledge. His office makes decisions on applications within 60 days and fully briefs prisoners on the requirements to apply.

"We know that almost 95 percent of the people that we send to prison are getting out," the Republican governor said. "So if we don't make at least part of what we're aiming at: 'What do we do with those people that get out?' then we're missing part of the law."

"We're a nation of second chances," he said. "Everybody makes mistakes. But if you want to fix your problem and be a productive citizen, we want to help."

Mr. McDonnell stumbled early in his administration when he floated the idea of allowing nonviolent felons to write letters explaining the circumstances related to their arrests and the steps they have taken toward rehabilitation. He pulled back on the widely criticized idea, but not before more than 200 notices were mistakenly mailed to felons directing them to write the letters.

As governor, Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, quashed the idea of requiring letters from nonviolent felons as part of the restoration process. He streamlined the process for felons who were convicted of nonviolent crimes by shortening the 13-page application form to one page. Applicants now can list a brief description of civic or community involvement, though it is not required.

Mr. Warner, now a U.S. senator, restored the rights to 3,486 ex-convicts during his term — more than the combined total for all the Virginia governors in the previous 20 years. Democrat Tim Kaine, who preceded Mr. McDonnell, restored rights to 4,402 ex-convicts.

Mr. McDonnell's office has approved the applications of about 2,000, or 89 percent, of nonviolent felons and roughly 80 percent of applications from violent felons.

His total already dwarfs those of his most recent Republican predecessors. Gov. James S. Gilmore III restored the rights of 238 felons, and George Allen, now running against Mr. Kaine for U.S. Senate, restored the rights of 460 ex-convicts. Mr. Allen, however, is better known for his effort that effectively abolished parole in the state.

Gov. Charles S. Robb, a Democrat who served from 1982 to 1986, restored rights to 1,180 felons.

Felons in 39 of the 50 states and the District automatically regain their voting rights once they have completed their sentences, which in some cases include parole and probation, while those in other states must petition the governor or a board. Two states — Maine and Vermont — do not disenfranchise people with criminal convictions.

The Maryland General Assembly in 2007 repealed its layered disenfranchisement law, and now restores voting rights for all felons on completion of their sentences, including prison, parole and probation.

In Virginia, nonviolent offenders can apply for restoration of their rights through the secretary of the commonwealth's office two years after completing their sentences. The waiting period is five years for violent offenders.

Carla Peterson, director of Virginia CURE, an advocacy group that advocates for prisoner re-entry initiatives, said she was pleased with Mr. McDonnell's efforts in restoring felons' right to vote, serve on juries and either run for or hold public office. But she would like him to go further.

"He has done an admirable job of streamlining the process," Ms. Peterson said. "We're very pleased he's doing that. We would still like Virginia to become in line with most other states, which have automatic restoration."

The issue often breaks along party lines. Democratic proposals to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons routinely die in the Virginia General Assembly.

It became a thorny issue for Republican presidential candidates to navigate recently as well.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania fumed at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a GOP presidential debate after an ad funded by a super PAC supporting Mr. Romney implied that Mr. Santorum, who supports restoring rights to convicted criminals who have served their time, wanted to extend the same rights to those still imprisoned.

Delegate Gregory D. Habeeb, Salem Republican, has introduced a bill this year to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons, except those convicted of felony drug or election fraud crimes.

He called Mr. McDonnell the "best governor in my lifetime" on the issue.

"This is a very conservative governor with a law-enforcement background acknowledging the importance of restoring rights of a subset of people at such an expedited clip," he said. "I'm very pleased to have a conservative Republican governor actually have a re-entry agenda. It should be a conservative Republican concept that we're talking about, but it hasn't been one that we've talked about."

But Mr. McDonnell has.

When Mr. Gilmore was in office and Mr. McDonnell was a delegate from Virginia Beach in private practice, he was hired to guide a client through the restoration-of-rights process. Eighteen months later, his client was denied, but his interest in reforming the process did not wane.

In 2010, Mr. McDonnell appointed the state's first statewide prisoner re-entry coordinator and created the Virginia Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Re-Entry Council in a bid to coordinate state efforts to try to combat recidivism.

"We've got every opportunity to help people achieve success," he said. "If they don't, we've got a prison cell for them. But if they want to have a chance to succeed, we're [going to] have tools in place to help them."

Legislation he signed into law last year included a measure to allow inmate labor to be used at rest stops in the state, another to require the Department of Corrections to establish a personal trust account for each inmate, and another that allows prisoner work forces to assist with maintaining privately owned, abandoned cemeteries.

Regarding Mr. Habeeb's bill and other automatic restoration-of-rights proposals, a spokeswoman for Mr. McDonnell said he would review any legislation that comes to his desk.

Mr. Habeeb, a lawyer by trade, said his own advocacy comes in part from his experience working with children whose parents had been incarcerated, and wanting them to have the same opportunity as his three children — to accompany their father to the polls.

"It's important to me when I go vote that I can take my kids with me," he said. "I think it does great damage to prevent a father from being able to do that with his kids."

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