RICHMOND -- Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli today released a report presenting legal alternatives to the current system of restoring the civil rights of nonviolent felons.
The report, compiled by a bipartisan commission of lawyers convened by the attorney general in March, suggests the General Assembly could establish and fund a "permanent function" under the governor's office, dedicated to rights applications.
It also says the governor could "exercise his discretionary clemency power in a more expansive manner" to streamline the process and make it easier for felons who have paid their debt to society to enjoy its rights sooner.
"I believe we need a simpler way for individuals who want to return to their place in society to be given a second chance and regain their civil rights that were lost through a felony conviction," Cuccinelli said during a news conference with members of the panel to discuss the report.
Restoration of civil rights includes the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for office and become a notary public.
Virginia is one of a handful of states that do not automatically restore the rights of nonviolent felons who have served their time and paid their fines and restitution. Instead, restoration of rights requires former felons to apply to the state, and the decision on each individual case rests with the governor.
After reviewing the Virginia Constitution and other legal documents on the subject, the bipartisan panel concluded that the General Assembly cannot pass a statute to provide automatic restoration. It also agreed that the governor could not issue an executive order to restore rights to all convicted felons.
The finding was not inconsistent with the assessments of previous governors from both parties, who concluded that an amendment to the Virginia Constitution is the only way to automatically restore the rights of felons, estimated to number around 350,000 in the commonwealth.
After making it to public referendum and being defeated in 1982, however, proponents of an automatic restoration amendment have seen their efforts die in the General Assembly.Earlier this year, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, expressed support for automatic restoration, only to see the measure again go down to defeat by members of his own party.
Since taking office McDonnell has restored the rights of more former felons than any governor before him.
Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor this year, supported McDonnell's bid for a constitutional amendment. But as a state senator, Cuccinelli voted against a constitutional amendment in five separate years.
On Tuesday, the attorney general said he had undergone a "change in heart" on the issue in recent years as he learned more about the criminal justice system and the impact of rights restoration on allowing successful re-entry of former criminals into society.
He dispelled "the notion that someone ought not to change a position once they learn things" and said people should be open to the "redemption and rehabilitation" of former felons.
Democrats,weren't buying it.
They accused Cuccinelli of playing election-year politics with the rights restoration issue, saying he opposed efforts to restore rights while serving in the Virginia Senate.
Del. Charniele L.Herring, D-Alexandria, the Democratic Party of Virginia chairwoman, said Cuccinelli had previous opportunities to support rights restoration, but voted against a constitutional amendment in the state Senate in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009.
And Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, called the Cuccinelli commission report "cynical election-year posturing.
"If this issue were actually important to the attorney general, he would not have waited more than three years," said McEachin.