ACLU challenges McDonnell to step up voting rights restoration

constitutionThe ACLU of Virginia sent Gov. Bob McDonnell a letter this week asking him to extend his new policy granting automatic restoration of voting rights to the largest number possible of those persons now disenfranchised by Virginia’s Jim Crow-era law permanently barring ex-felons from voting. The ACLU of Virginia also asked the Governor to ensure that the implementation of the new policy will significantly reduce or remove the barriers endured by past applicants, such as the cost of attaching certified court documents. The Governor announced the new “automatic” restoration of rights program on May 29th, 2013, and it is set to go into effect on July 15th.

“We appreciate sincerely all that the Governor has done to restore the voting rights of more than 5, 000 people who were disenfranchised in Virginia, and his advocacy on behalf of the interests of the more than 350,000 still waiting to get their voting rights back,” said ACLU of Virginia’s Executive Director, Claire G. Gastañaga. “At the same time, however, we challenge the Governor to offer his new “automatic” restoration program to the broadest class of individuals possible.

“Without an expansive list of eligible non-violent offenses for restoration of civil rights, disenfranchised Virginians will continue to live as second-class citizens — paying taxes, raising children, and working in the community without a voice,” Gastañaga continued.”The Governor has the opportunity in his sole discretion to restore the rights of literally hundreds of thousands of people, and we hope that he will make the most of this opportunity to make history and leave a positive legacy,” she concluded.

The ACLU of Virginia strongly favors a policy of automatically restoring the rights of all persons convicted of felonies once they have been released from probation or parole, and without being conditioned on payment of fines, fees, and restitution. So long as there is a discretionary list differentiating felonies, and a requirement of payment of fines, fees, and restitution, which constitutes a sort of poll tax, the ACLU of Virginia will be asking the Governor and the General Assembly to remove these barriers that block otherwise qualified individuals from exercising their fundamental right to vote

“We understand that the Governor isn’t yet prepared to go as far as we would like,” said ACLU of Virginia’s Legislative Counsel, Hope Amezquita. “Nonetheless, we were discouraged that the offenses of burglary and breaking and entering were moved to the violent offense list after the press conference announcing the Governor’s intent to make restorations ‘automatic’ for those convicted of non-violent offenses,” Amezquita said. “These and offenses related to drug use should clearly be included in any list that the Governor uses to restore rights automatically,” she concluded.

The legislative trend of re-classifying misdemeanors to felonies and, subsequently, re-classifying non-violent felonies to violent felonies has contributed to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, over incarceration in jails and prisons, and created endless collateral consequences for individuals after fully completing their sentences.

“It is nearly undisputed that African Americans and members of other minority groups are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated at rates that are disproportionate to the rates of white people who commit the same crimes,” added Amezquita. “Thus, these individuals represent a significant portion of disenfranchised Virginians. Adopting a wide-ranging list of non-violent offenses for purposes of restoration of voting rights would significantly help mitigate the lifelong consequences a felony conviction could have for individuals who have redeemed themselves and returned to live and work in society. They have served their time and fulfilled their other obligations to the court. They should not be required to forfeit their civil rights for the remainder of their lives.”

A copy of the letter sent to Gov. McDonnell can be seen here:

Letter to Governor McDonnell


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