RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced policy changes Friday that will make it easier for violent felons and drug offenders to regain their voting rights.
The waiting period for violent felons to apply for restoration of rights has been reduced to three years from five, the governor said. He also has removed drug offenses from the list of violent crimes that are subject to the waiting period. Virginians convicted of felony drug crimes will now be considered nonviolent offenders, allowing them to regain their rights immediately after completing their prison time and paying any court-imposed costs.
Also, the secretary of the commonwealth will compile a list clarifying which offenses require a waiting period before an offender can apply to regain the rights to vote, to hold political office and to serve on a jury.
"Virginians who have made a mistake and paid their debt to society should have their voting rights restored through a process that is as transparent and responsive as possible," McAuliffe said in a statement.
In Virginia, only the governor can restore felons' voting rights. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell streamlined the process and restored the civil rights of more than 8,000 felons, nearly twice as many as any previous administration.
McAuliffe's revisions build on that effort. He said his administration already has restored the rights of more than 800 Virginians in his first three months in office.
Advocacy organizations estimate that about 350,000 Virginians remain disenfranchised. The groups have pushed for automatic restoration of felons' rights — a change that would require an amendment to the Virginia Constitution. They welcomed McAuliffe's changes as a positive step.
"As a result of today's decision, more people will be able to fully rejoin their communities and stand alongside their neighbors at the voting booth," said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project.
Advocates were especially pleased that drug felonies will be considered nonviolent. Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, noted that the Justice Policy Institute recently reported that blacks comprise only 20 percent of Virginia's population but make up 72 percent of those in prison for a drug offense.
"By recategorizing drug offenses from being considered violent to nonviolent offenses, the administration will not only make thousands eligible to have their rights restored under less onerous criteria, but will also help to lessen the impact of the discriminatory enforcement of Virginia's drug laws," Gastanaga said.
The General Assembly has repeatedly rejected proposals to amend the constitution to allow immediate and automatic restoration of all felons' civil rights. Supporters of automatic restoration said they will keep trying.
"We believe that once an individual has served their time and fully paid their debt to society, they should have their civil rights restored without any additional burdens or punishments," said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of Virginia New Majority.