- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner has restored rights to 1,892 felons, more than the state’s three previous governors combined.

Some Republican lawmakers are claiming the Democratic governor is approving petitions of felons without scrutiny, which the administration denies.

Mr. Warner has granted a total of 1,892 petitions since taking office in 2002, more than any other governor in Virginia in at least 30 years. Mr. Warner has about 15 months left in his term and there are currently 157 applications pending his approval.

Felons who have their rights restored are allowed to vote, run for and hold public office and serve on juries. They cannot possess a firearm or carry a concealed weapon.

So far, Mr. Warner has approved 1,100 applications this year, 150 of which he granted in September. The last day Virginia residents could register to vote in the Nov. 2 presidential election was Oct. 4.

Mr. Warner rejected 114 petitions since he took office in January 2002.

The sharp increase in approvals can be partly attributed to a backlog of 732 requests Mr. Warner inherited when he took office. Some of the requests were more than four years old.

All of the petitions granted met the eligibility criteria for consideration.

During Mr. Warner’s campaign, he promised to develop a better process for reviewing the applications. Once elected, he accelerated the process for felons who were convicted of nonviolent crimes by shortening the 13-page application form to only one page.

Felons who were convicted of violent crimes must submit several documents supporting their case and complete the 13-page application, the same process used during previous administrations.

“Initial results indicate that Governor Warner’s restoration pace has far exceeded what we’ve seen in other states,” said Ryan King, research associate for the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit criminal justice advocacy group. “There is no one else going at the rate he’s going.”

Mr. King said his group is in the early stages of analyzing state-by-state numbers, but made his comments based on what he’s observed.

Officials have said many ex-convicts want to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

Delegate Bill Janis said he suspects Mr. Warner is not carefully reviewing each applicant. He said his main concern is that convicted criminals will end up serving jury duty.

“The governor needs to demonstrate there is a thorough review being done before he just automatically rubber-stamps their applications for restoration of voting rights,” the Goochland Republican said. “It’s important we be sure they’ve been rehabilitated and have rejoined polite society before we put them up there in the jury box.”

Warner spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said the governor takes restoration of rights “very seriously.”

“It’s not a rubber stamp. We go through an extensive process,” she said.

In a letter, Secretary of the Commonwealth Anita A. Rimler told critics that Mr. Warner has created a system “that protects the safety of all Virginians while enabling deserving individuals to have their rights restored on a case-by-case basis.”

“Constitutionally, a governor has total discretion to grant, deny or ignore requests to restore rights,” Miss Rimler wrote.

Delegate Bradley P. Marrs said yesterday someone who breaks the “societal contract” should face “permanent consequences.”

“It appears now that we’re abandoning the process of checking and screening to separate the good eggs from the bad and we’re just going to approve everyone,” the Chesterfield County Republican said.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, a Republican and usual Warner foe, defended the governor’s office yesterday.

Mr. Griffith, of Roanoke County, said he requested Mr. Warner to restore the rights of at least two felons. He said past governors have been hesitant to grant restoration.

“We have lots of folks out there who have made mistakes,” he said. “At some point you have to say they paid their debt to society and let them back in.”

Mr. Griffith said he does not believe Mr. Warner’s actions are politically motivated.

Miss Qualls said because of the looming voter registration deadline, efforts were made to speed up the process for those applications that were ready for the governor’s approval.

Mr. Warner’s Republican predecessor, former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, restored the rights of 238 felons. Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican who served as governor before Mr. Gilmore, restored the rights of 460 ex-convicts.

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

Mr. Gilmore said yesterday he had a threshold test for restoration of rights. “I looked to see whether or not the person had done something good for the community or done something positive to deserve what is considered an act of executive clemency,” he said.

Mr. Gilmore characterized the difference in the number of approvals as a variation of policy between him and Mr. Warner, saying he tried to be “respectful” of the state policy crafted by the General Assembly.

In Virginia, a felon loses voting rights permanently unless the governor restores them. Only a handful of states have a similar policy. Most states automatically allow felons to vote after they have completed their sentence.

There is a waiting period to petition the governor in Virginia. Felons convicted of nonviolent crimes must wait three years; those convicted of violent crimes must wait five years.

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