Richmond Free Press Column: General Assembly Session Update #4

A message from Senator McClellan        

 The 2017 General Assembly Session is now halfway over as the House and Senate considered hundreds of bills on Monday and Tuesday covering a wide variety of topics such as immigration, voting rights, school discipline, student loans, Airbnb, the regulation of property carriers, charter and virtual schools, and public procurement.  

        Most disappointing, the Senate passed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that effectively undoes the progress made under Governor McAuliffe, in removing barriers to restoration of rights for convicted felons who have served their time and completed all post-sentence supervision. The Constitution of Virginia grants the Governor the sole authority to restore the rights of individuals who have been convicted of a felony. The single largest stumbling block for many has been requirements imposed to pay in full any restitution, fines, costs, and fees assessed as a result of a conviction. In recognition of this impediment, Governor McAuliffe established a historic policy last April that any felon who has completed his or her sentence and supervised release (including supervised probation or parole) is eligible to have his or her rights restored. House and Senate Republicans successfully challenged the Governor’s original order granting blanket restoration of rights to over 200,000 individuals when the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled he had to restore rights one at a time. Undeterred, the Governor began restoring rights one by one to any individual who completed their sentence and post-sentence supervision, regardless of the crime committed, and regardless of any outstanding restitution, fines, costs, and fees. Unable to stop him, Senator Tommy Norment introduced SJ 223 to undo his actions.

SJ 223 enshrines in the Virginia Constitution requirements that anyone convicted of a violent felony (as defined by the General Assembly at some future date) cannot have his or her rights restored until at least five years after completion of his or her sentence and post-sentence supervision and payment in full of any restitution, fines, costs, and fees. While the amendment purports to grant automatic restoration for persons convicted of non-violent felonies upon completion of any sentence or post-sentence supervision, it authorizes the General Assembly to impose any additional criteria it wishes at any time.

Virginia is only one of a handful of states that requires felons to apply to have their rights restored after completion of a sentence. The late Senator Yvonne Miller tried for many years to add a legislative path to restoration to the Constitution to supplement the Governor’s power. Under the guise of creating a permanent process for restoration of rights for non-violent felons, SJ 223 undoes all the progress made under the past three Governors to make it easier for low-income individuals to have their rights restored.

As a Commonwealth full of people who believe in redemption and second chances, we should strive to provide a clear path for those who have served their time to be productive members of society once again. In a government by, of, and for the people, voting is a sacred right that should be restored as quickly and easily as possible.

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