Today, Governor McAuliffe announced two important reforms to the restoration of civil rights process. First, all drug offenses will be considered non-violent instead of violent offenses, and processed under the less onerous criteria for restoration of rights. Second, the mandatory five year waiting period for individuals convicted of violent felonies has been reduced to three years.
Additionally, the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth will publish a comprehensive list of which offenses are considered violent and non-violent felonies for the purposes of restoration of rights. These changes will make more Virginians eligible to have their voting rights restored.
“Last fall, we called on then candidate Terry McAuliffe to, if elected, initiate more reforms to the restoration of rights process, and we’re pleased that he has chosen to do so,” said ACLU of Virginia Staff Attorney & Legislative Counsel Hope Amezquita. “While we won’t stop until the felon disenfranchisement law is eliminated, we support these policy reforms to mitigate the impact of this Jim Crow era law.”
Over 450,000 Virginians are unable to vote because of the Commonwealth’s felon disenfranchisement law. Many of these Virginians are disenfranchised because of a drug felony conviction. With few exceptions, Virginia’s criminal sentencing laws treat most drug offenses as non-violent crimes; however they were classified as violent felonies under the restoration of rights policy and subjected applicants to many more requirements.
“African Americans are disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of Virginia’s drug laws,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. “As the Justice Policy Institute reported earlier this month, while African Americans comprise only twenty percent of Virginia’s population, they make up seventy-two percent of those in prison for a drug offense. By recategorizing drug offenses from being considered violent to non-violent offenses, the administration will not only make thousands eligible to have their rights restored under the less onerous criteria, but will also help to lessen the impact of the discriminatory enforcement of Virginia’s drug laws.”
But, Governor McAuliffe’s work to build on restoration of rights progress begun under former Governor McDonnell still faces a major hurdle. The House of Delegates’ budget proposal removed the additional resources that then-Governor McDonnell determined would be necessary to efficiently process restoration of rights candidates.
“Governor McDonnell’s felon disenfranchisement reforms were a huge step forward and received praise from legislators in both parties,” said Gastañaga. “With this bi-partisan support in mind, we were stunned when the House of Delegates removed from then Governor McDonnell’s budget the additional resources that he identified as necessary to efficiently process restoration of rights candidates. This budget item has no connection to the restoration of rights legislation that failed to pass the House of Delegates earlier this year. The General Assembly should ensure that this funding is restored to the budget.”