On Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, Gov. Robert McDonnell delivered the Annual State of the State Address to the combined houses of the Virginia General Assembly. In his address Governor McDonnell surprised many people both in the chamber and listening at home when he made a full-throated appeal to restore the voting rights of non-violent felons upon completion of their sentences and legal obligations.
In making the case for restoration of felons rights (the legal term being re-enfranchisement) Gov. McDonnell made the following statement: “As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society once they have served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution. It is time for Virginia to join most of the other states and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic process for non-violent offenders.”
Although I don’t agree with the governor on most policy positions, on the issue of felon re-enfranchisement Gov. McDonnell has my full support and the support of thousands of Virginians who understand that a when a person pays their full debt to society required by our legal system it is both illogical and inconceivable that their right to vote is not returned. A society that seeks to keep citizens who have paid their societal debt from voting must ask itself at what point does a person earn the right to stop paying for their offense. What is the goal of denying American citizens who owe nothing more to society the rights of full citizenship? What is the rationale for keeping a now law-abiding, 40-year-old man whose offense was felony shoplifting at age 19 from voting? When can a convicted felon finish serving their sentence; when is enough punishment enough? And, although I’m not an attorney, isn’t denying the right to vote for people who have paid their debt to society a form of double jeopardy (defined as prosecution for the same offense after acquittal or conviction or multiple punishments for same offense).
A November 2000 publication from the U. S. Department of Justice on Sentencing and Correction found that felons who participate in all levels of society are less likely to re-offend. On the issue of re-enfranchisement, the Justice Department concluded, “Denying large segments of the population the right to vote is likely to cause further alienation and erode feelings of community engagement.” In addition, study after study illustrates that when felons fully re-engage in their community they are more likely to become productive members of society who are not a financial drain on local or state resources.
Perhaps, Virginia, it is time to join 46 other states that have figured out that withholding the right to vote from law-abiding citizens who have paid their debt – people who may in fact be your neighbor, parent or child – harms the community, is a form of disenfranchisement and is offensive to those who revere the Constitution of the United State of America.