When is a criminal’s debt to society officially paid in full? It’s a good question. About thirty years ago, I was working at our local polling place. I was the Democratic poll worker and a very nice gentleman was the Republican poll worker and we started talking. He has since passed on, but he was prominent in local business and was a passionate Republican. He was also delightful to talk to. It was chilly and raining he said it reminded him of his time in Korea during the war. He was no spring chicken. We were chatting about voting, how many people had been to vote, and I asked if he wanted to go in and vote himself. It was getting dark and the big rush would be on soon. I even agreed to hand out both sample ballots while he was inside. These were kinder and gentler times in partisan politics.
The thing is, he said he couldn’t vote. That surprised me, and I said, “…come on, of course you can? Just give me your sample ballots and go inside and vote.” Clearly, I didn’t have a clue where he was coming from. Then he told me, with a frankness that surprised me, that he had an old felony conviction from when he was 19. He had stolen a car, back in 1950, got caught and had a conviction on his record. It was really a joy ride and since he was already scheduled to report for military service he didn’t get jail time. But a felony conviction is permanent. Which means under Virginia law he had lost his right to vote, his right to serve on a jury, and the right to run for public office.
His contributions to his community in the decades since had been immense. His honesty was above question. So, I asked why he didn’t apply to get his rights back. After all, he didn’t even go to jail. His answer wasn’t that surprising. Most people didn’t know about the conviction, it was a terrible embarrassment to his family at the time, and he didn’t want to bring it up again. It was as simple as that.
Other states, from Maryland, to Ohio and California, automatically restore a felon’s civil rights once they have served their sentence. Some have a waiting period, but most assume a felon, having paid their debt to society, should, at some point, have their basic rights of citizenship rights returned to them. But, not in Virginia.
The General Assembly has never had much stomach for relaxing the rules on restoring rights to onetime felons. Most like the law just the way it is. Besides no politician of either party is anxious to look like he is soft on criminals. No matter, how common sense the change in the rules might. That’s politics.
However, there was one Governor who challenged the way Virginia treats it former felons. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe, using his clemency powers, gave basic civil rights, to include the right to vote, run for office and serve on juries, back to just about all of the state’s former wrong doers. Some 200,000 of them. The thing is, this sweeping action had some serious flaws. Not everyone who had their civil rights restored deserved it and there were some questions about whether this use of the governor’s clemency powers was Constitutional. Most importantly, from a policy standpoint, it had no long-term impact on the rules governing the restoration of civil rights to former felons.
Unfortunately, this has been and remains a partisan issue. The assumption seems to be that all former felons can’t wait to run to the polls and vote for the Democrats. There is little evidence to support this, my friend from that long-ago election certainly wouldn’t and besides that isn’t the point. When a person has paid their debt to society, it should be considered paid in full and not a lifetime denial of the normal rights of citizenship.