RICHMOND, Va. — The process of restoring felons’ constitutional rights could be improved by designating an executive branch agency to handle all the legwork, a committee appointed by Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli said in a report released Tuesday.
Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor, appointed the Rights Restoration Advisory Committee in March to determine whether the procedure for restoring felons’ rights can be revised without amending the Virginia Constitution. Proposals to amend the constitution to automatically restore nonviolent felons’ rights have failed repeatedly, most recently in the 2013 General Assembly.
In Virginia, the governor has the sole authority to restore felons’ rights to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury and as a notary public. The advisory committee concluded that the governor cannot issue an executive order restoring all felons’ rights, but must consider each case individually.
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has streamlined the process administratively, but the seven-member panel said it could be further enhanced by General Assembly approval of legislation allowing a state agency to solicit and process applications. The governor would still have the final say in keeping with the constitution.
Cuccinelli said at a news conference that he likes some parts of the panel’s idea — particularly working more closely with religious and community groups interested in prisoner rehabilitation and re-entry into society — but he prefers to keep the program within the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office.
McDonnell also has reviewed the report and will make “a major announcement regarding restoration of rights” on Wednesday, spokesman Tucker Martin said.
Cuccinelli’s announcement of the panel’s findings comes in a mid-year effort to turn dialogue in his gubernatorial campaign away from the socially conservative positions that have defined his career in elected office and now characterize his GOP ticket mates as well. Attorney general candidate Mark Obenshain backed a bill in 2009 that would make it a misdemeanor for a woman not to report to law enforcement authorities a miscarriage unattended by medical professionals. Lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson is a Chesapeake minister who has compared Planned Parenthood to the Ku Klux Klan and suggested President Barack Obama is Muslim.
Democrats sought to portray Cuccinelli as a hypocrite on the felons’ rights issue in a telephone news conference before his event, noting his opposition as a state senator to felons’ rights restoration legislation in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009.
In 2008, when then-Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine was restoring felons’ rights at a record pace, Cuccinelli wrote in his weekly newsletter to conservative supporters that “the other side (Democrats) sees criminals as a voting bloc that would be favorable to them, so they bent precedents to register as many criminals as possible” before a voter registration deadline.
“The timing of Ken Cuccinelli’s decision raises serious questions about whether this announcement has more to do with his campaign for governor than it does with doing the right thing for people who deserve to have their civil rights restored,” said Del. Charnielle Herring of Alexandria, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Cuccinelli said his views have simply evolved in recent years.
“When I was in the Senate, I wasn’t very supportive of restoration of rights,” he said. “I thought of it as part of the punishment for being a felon.”
But he said he became increasingly concerned about “felony creep” — the legislative trend of increasing crimes from misdemeanors to felonies, resulting in people losing their constitutional rights for offenses that were considered relatively minor when the governor was given sole discretion to restore rights 180 years ago.
“This has been something of a change of heart for me, to be sure — especially over the last five years,” Cuccinelli said.
Cuccinelli and McDonnell, who has approved more nonviolent felon rights applications than any administration in history and speaks of it as a proud achievement, backed this year’s proposal to amend the constitution to allow automatic restoration of rights. But the proposal, historically championed by Democrats, died in the heavily Republican House of Delegates.
Cuccinelli said he has no reason to believe a constitutional amendment would pass next year, so while he would support it he would not spend a lot of political capital promoting the measure. Instead, he would focus on improving the process within the existing constitutional framework.
“We need a simpler way for these individuals who want to return to their place in society to be given a second chance and to regain their civil rights that were lost through a felony conviction,” he said.
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