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Cuccinelli’s advisory committee suggests improvements, but a constitutional amendment is needed.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli deserves credit for spearheading a review of Virginia’s arbitrary process for restoring the civil rights of nonviolent felons, a function controlled by the governor. An advisory committee appointed by Cuccinelli has produced a thoughtful analysis of alternatives to a constitutional amendment that would establish an automatic restoration process for offenders who have served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution.
While the committee suggested ways to improve the current flawed system, only a constitutional change can produce a fair and efficient method of restoring voting rights to offenders who have paid their debt to society. Virginia is one of only four states that require felons to apply to the governor to have their civil rights restored. Cuccinelli said Tuesday that he supports a constitutional amendment to make the process automatic — even though he opposed it as a member of the state Senate — but he doubts that it could get through a General Assembly controlled by his Republican Party.
Gov. Bob McDonnell has restored the rights of 4,600-plus Virginians, more than any previous governor, by committing his administration to a more timely review of applications submitted by offenders. But, as Cuccinelli’s advisory committee noted, the number of Virginians who apply to have their rights restored represents a small percentage of those with “political disabilities” due to felony convictions. And there’s no guarantee that future governors will give restoration of rights the same priority that McDonnell has.
McDonnell recognized this in January when, in his State of the Commonwealth address, he urged lawmakers to support a constitutional amendment to establish an automatic rights restoration process. Five days later, despite endorsements from Cuccinelli and lawmakers in both parties, a seven-member subcommittee of the House of Delegates killed the legislation.
So Cuccinelli’s advisory committee examined ways of improving the process under the current law, which requires decisions about restoring rights to be made on an individual basis. The panel concluded that the governor can implement “proactive outreach and educational efforts” to reach individuals who are eligible to have their rights restored but haven’t applied. The approach “should be able to reach many who may feel they are not in a position to get a Governor’s attention,” the committee’s report states.
The committee suggested that the General Assembly could designate an existing state agency to lead the revamped process or approve funding to beef up the staff under the secretary of the commonwealth, the cabinet office that now handles applications for restoring civil rights. Either approach would improve the current system.
But if Cuccinelli truly is committed to a just process for restoring rights of nonviolent offenders, he won’t waver in his new-found support for a constitutional amendment to create a permanent, automatic procedure that isn’t subject to the whims of future governors.
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