The final press release from the Office of Gov. Ralph Northam touted a noble goal achieved by the Democrat in his four years in office: the restoration of civil rights to more than 126,000 individuals who completed their sentences and fully paid their debts to society.
“Virginians are forgiving people, who believe in second chances,” Northam said. “When people make mistakes, and pay their debts, they deserve the opportunity to return and be productive members of society. We can all be proud that Virginia has been able to provide thousands of deserving people the opportunity for a fresh start.”
The release also noted that Northam granted pardons to over 1,200 Virginians over the past four years – including exonerating eight individuals who served lengthy prison sentences after being wrongfully convicted for crimes that they did not commit.
The Constitution of Virginia grants the governor the authority to grant reprieves and pardons after conviction and restore the civil rights to individuals convicted of a felony.
Northam has used his executive authority to provide a second chance to Virginians who have demonstrated a commitment to rehabilitation.
A pardon provides unique relief to individuals with exceptional circumstances who have demonstrated rehabilitation. The governor can grant three types of pardons: simple, conditional, or absolute. A pardon does not remove the crime from an individual’s record. Pardon petitions go through a thorough and extensive review process, meaning most petitions do not receive a decision for several years.
Northam acted on nearly 4,000 pardon petitions, far more than his predecessors. This was made possible by dedicating additional staff and resources to ensure those seeking clemency receive thorough consideration.
The review team has promoted a clemency system that makes the process equitable, transparent, and timely. This includes launching a redesigned, user-friendly website, and creating a portal enabling individuals to submit a pardon petition electronically, check the status of a pending petition, and provide support or opposition for a petition. This allows staff to spend less time opening and sorting mail and more time reviewing actual petitions.
During his term, Northam built on a number of bipartisan reforms made to the restoration of rights process over the last decade. Northam created new eligibility criteria, mirroring a proposed change to the Constitution of Virginia that would automatically restore voting rights to individuals upon completion of their sentence of incarceration.
The release also noted that Northam was proud to announce that going forward, any Virginian released from incarceration would qualify to have their rights restored, even if they remain on community supervision.
Under current law, anyone convicted of a felony in Virginia loses their civil rights, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for office, become a public notary, and carry a firearm. Virginia remains one of the three states in the nation whose constitution permanently disenfranchises citizens with past felony convictions, but gives the governor the sole discretion to restore civil rights, excluding firearm rights.
“It has been an honor to work with a governor who is so committed to second chances,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson. “His actions will leave lasting impacts on countless Virginians who have moved forward from the mistakes of their past and deserve to be treated as full citizens and community members. It is my hope that future administrations continue this important work.”