Virginia’s Criminal Justice System – The Case for Reform, Part IV: Restore Voting Rights

The death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman have focused the public’s attention on the issue of race in America – both on the streets and within our criminal justice system.  While we must all respect constitutionally guaranteed due process rights, we must also not confuse the need to respect due process with the need to accept a criminal justice system that:

-    Disproportionately impacts people of color;
-    Lacks transparency;
-    Wastes tax dollars;
-    Enables abuses of power;
-    Relies on ineffective solutions; and
-    Undermines the right to vote.

Throughout the fall, we will highlight these concerns in our blog series, Virginia’s Criminal Justice System – The Case for Reform.

Letter to Virginia’s Candidates: Restore Voting Rights

By Hope R. Amezquita, Staff Attorney & Legislative Counsel

What is your first thought when you hear that hundreds of thousands of Virginians, including a disproportionate number of African Americans, have been stripped of their fundamental right to vote.  Jim Crow era Virginia?  Unfortunately, no – it is 2013 Virginia.  Under Virginia’s Constitution, individuals convicted of a felony are permanently barred from voting.  Fortunately, though insufficient, the Constitution also grants the Governor the right to restore an individual’s voting rights and Governor McDonnell has taken some positive steps in this direction.  Only a few months ago, Governor McDonnell announced that he was “automatically” restoring civil rights for non-violent felons; however, when the details of the policy were released, we realized that there was still much to do.  While there were some improvements, such as the removal of an application or waiting-period requirement for non-violent felons, there are still too many arbitrary hurdles to restoring this fundamental right.  Virginia is one of only four states that continue to disenfranchise their citizens permanently – it is past time for Virginia to make that a list of three.

Case in point: with the exception of simple possession, all other drug crimes are still classified as “violent” felonies for purposes of voter restoration, even though Virginia law treats those crimes as non-violent for sentencing purposes.  And, because in Virginia African-Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts African Americans have been disproportionately stripped of their right to vote.  While African Americans make up only 7% of Virginia’s population, one in five African-Americans, or 20%, is disenfranchised.  This statistic showcases the unfair prejudices that permeate our criminal justice system; it is not limited to marijuana possession – it applies to all crimes.

As of now, hundreds of thousands of Virginians still cannot vote on November 5.  This is unacceptable.  Significant reform is needed and public officials must get on board.  This includes ensuring that all Virginians are aware of the restoration of rights process.  It has been reported that 800 rights restorations have been processed since Governor McDonnell’s policy announcement.  While 800 sounds like a large number, it’s a drop in the bucket when compared to the over 300,000 Virginians permanently stripped of their right to vote.

Today, we, along with several other organizations, sent letters to the candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General of Virginia asking them to commit to restoring this fundamental right to all disenfranchised Virginians.   We call on the candidates to work with each other and other public officials to enact meaningful reform – to help ensure that Jim Crow has no place in 21st century Virginia.   We hope to hear from the candidates soon – stay tuned!