Kerr: Restoration of civil rights lengthy overdue | Opinion

When I ran for the school board, there was a man on the ground who put a lot of time and effort into my campaign.

He was wonderful and successful in his business, pouring special foundations for new houses. He was well read, active in his community, and a veteran. An exemplary citizen. However, I found out a little more about him on election day when I said, “Hey, we have to stop by your station and vote. I need all the votes I can get ”

That was the point of revelation. He admitted he couldn’t vote because he and some friends stole a car when he was 18. It was a classic joyride, but a serious crime nonetheless. They were arrested and sentenced. He avoided jail time by taking the judge’s option, joining the army, and eventually serving in the Korean War.

In Virginia, however, he was a felon, a unique designation that entails loss of the right to vote, is a juror, running for office, and even, yes, is a notary.

I asked him why he hadn’t asked for his rights to be restored after all these years. He just said, “That would be too embarrassing.” My only thought was that it all seemed pretty sad and a kind of travesty of justice. How long should someone have to pay for their crime?

Crime and crimes come in many ways, but a rationale of our justice system is that once you’ve spent your time and paid off your debts to society, you should be ready to start over. Not so in Virginia.

In 18 countries, criminals who have served their sentences can have their civil rights automatically restored after the sentence has ended. Another 19 never take away, and some others have a wait before these rights are restored.

But Virginia was moving slowly. Withholding civil rights vis-à-vis former criminals has a long and unpleasant tradition in the state. When former Confederates and white supremacists regained power in the late 19th century, one of the first things they did was dismiss a criminal from voting.

This principle was incorporated into the infamous segregationist constitution of 1901 and carried over to the constitution of 1971. It has lowered the pool of African American voters and remains a grim reminder of an unfortunate past.

As modern and progressive as Virginia has become, until this year, at least, lawmakers never got this far to change the constitution and give offenders the rights of regular citizens.

In 2015, the then government. Terry McAuliffe extensively restored the rights of offenders and returned them to anyone convicted of a crime. Unsurprisingly, the Republican-dominated legislature challenged the governor’s actions in court. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that restoring a criminal’s civil rights is a power that the governor can only exercise on a case-by-case basis.

That year, the General Assembly approved, largely on the partisan model, a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at restoring the right to vote for offenders once they have passed their time. The change must be passed again in the 2022 General Assembly before it can be included in the vote. Constitutional amendments are only made if approved by the electorate. So this is by no means a closed deal.

If the GOP takes back a majority in the House of Representatives this fall or Virginia elects a more conservative GOP governor, it can be difficult to get the bill passed twice. At the moment, however, this archaic determination can finally be in the last few days.

David Kerr is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked for many years on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies.

Comments are closed.