By Hope Amezquita, ACLU of Virginia Staff Attorney & Legislative Counsel
This past week the nation’s top attorney, Eric Holder, spoke eloquently about the debilitating harms caused by felon disenfranchisement laws. Attorney General Holder called such laws “unnecessary and unjust” and based on “centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.” We agree! As we have long argued, felon disenfranchisement laws are vestiges of the Jim Crow Era, rooted in racism and fear. It’s past time for Governor McAuliffe to use his authority to expand the number of people whose rights are being restored and to advocate for the permanent repeal of the Commonwealth’s discriminatory and counterproductive felon disenfranchisement laws. Tell Governor McAuliffe to act now!
Repealing Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement laws would close the book on a dark part of Virginia’s history. It would also facilitate a reentry process that encourages individuals to fully reintegrate into their communities. Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement laws currently have the opposite effect. These laws tell a certain group of Virginians that they have fewer rights – that they cannot participate in one of the most fundamental aspects of our democracy.
It’s been over a month since Governor McAuliffe took office, and we’re still waiting to hear his plans to end felon disenfranchisement in Virginia. Meanwhile, at this very moment, the legislature is debating the Commonwealth’s budget bills, which determine the policy priorities for the next two years. The House’s budget bill strips away funding for the Secretary of Commonwealth’s restoration of rights project. Before leaving office, Governor McDonnell asked for additional resources to continue the success of his restoration of rights project. The office is understaffed and overworked trying to process applications. If passed, the budget bill would dismantle this progress. It’s time for Governor McAuliffe to take a stand – to hammer in one of the final nails in the coffin of Jim Crow Virginia, and to ensure that the Commonwealth’s laws encourage individuals released from prison to fully reintegrate into our communities.
The disenfranchisement rates in Virginia continue to soar as a result of the exponential increase in the number of criminal offenses now classified as felonies (including stealing a chicken worth $5, a pair of tennis shoes valued at $200 and myriad other nonviolent acts). And, recent data has demonstrated that our criminal justice system continues to impact communities of color disproportionally, e.g., black Virginians are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Virginians, resulting in black Virginians being overrepresented among those permanently banned from voting (even after an individual fully completes his or her sentence).
The legislature has failed to act to change the Constitution and is threatening to destroy the improvements of the past year. Governor McAuliffe needs to move fast because more than 450,000 Virginians are still waiting to regain their fundamental right to vote. Attorney General Holder has renewed the nation’s interest. We’re anxious for Governor McAuliffe to show the same leadership in Virginia.