Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell says he will automatically restore civil rights to nonviolent felons in Virginia on a conditional, case-by-case basis, signifying an evolution of sorts on criminal justice policy among some factions of the Republican Party.
The announcement Wednesday puts a coda on an issue he has campaigned and worked on since at least 2009. Mr. McDonnell already has restored the rights of more than 4,800 ex-convicts — more than any of his predecessors.
"I strongly believe the foremost obligation of any government is to provide for the security and protection of its citizens. When someone commits a crime they must be justly punished," Mr. McDonnell said Wednesday. "For those who have fully paid their debt for their crimes, they deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights."
The shift in policy means that ex-convicts in Virginia will no longer have to wait two years to be eligible or to apply to the governor's office to get their rights restored, and misdemeanor charges and convictions will no longer be a factor for restoration. About 350,000 ex-convicts in the state have completed prison sentences but remain disenfranchised, according to a study released last year by the nonprofit Sentencing Project.
Felons in 36 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. Only two states — Maine and Vermont — do not disenfranchise people with criminal convictions.
Mr. McDonnell opened the General Assembly session this year by advocating legislation that would allow nonviolent felons to regain their civil rights once they finish their sentences. The proposal was decisively defeated in committee.
The position — and Wednesday's announcement — is a long time coming for Republicans in Virginia.
George Allen, a former Virginia governor and U.S. senator, ran on a law-and-order platform during his 1993 gubernatorial campaign, pledging, among other things, to abolish parole. Former Gov. James S. Gilmore III ran on a similar platform and was elected attorney general the same year.
Mr. Gilmore, who succeeded Mr. Allen as governor, said he wanted to defer to the state Constitution and the legislature on the issue. A ballot initiative seeking to restore voting rights failed in 1982.
"My view was that it was a matter of executive clemency," he said. "So it was a case-by-case basis, based upon the individual. I just did not exercise gubernatorial prerogative in that way. This is different."
Prior administrations notwithstanding, Mr. McDonnell's position presents a noticeable shift from criminal-justice reform efforts around the country during the mid-1990s that were not confined to conservative states.
In 1994, California passed the "three strikes and you're out" law, which required a minimum of 25 years imprisonment for third-time offenders with multiple prior serious or felony convictions. Ten years later, more than half the states and the federal government had instituted similar laws.
Also in 1994, congressional Republicans rolled out their "Contract for America." The policy platform for that year's midterm elections included items like the "Taking Back Our Streets Act," which, among other things, would reward states for adopting so-called "truth-in-sentencing" parole laws like Virginia's.
But California voters, by a more than 2-to-1 margin, voted last year to require that the third felony conviction be "serious or violent." A 2010 study from the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School had found more 4,000 inmates in state prisons were serving life sentences for nonviolent felonies under the law.
Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, said one thing that's driving the shift toward more of a combination of punishment and rehabilitation is the price tag of keeping prisoners locked up for extended sentences. He pointed out that such budget woes have struck red and blue states alike.
And Ford O'Connell, a GOP consultant, said he didn't know that the party has changed on crime as much as the rest of the nation has.
" 'Felony' does not carry the same stigma it once did," he said. "Hence, the difference in classification between 'violent' and 'nonviolent' felonies."
Both Mr. Kidd and Mr. O'Connell acknowledged potential electoral consequences among the black community for the GOP — not necessarily as justification for the shift, but a potential effect.
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