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March 29, 2013

Felons Should Prove They Deserve Restoration of Rights

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Gov. Bob McDonnell and others propose automatically restoring all civil rights — including the right to vote — to nonviolent felons just as soon as they have completed their sentences and paid all outstanding fines and restitution.

Advocates of this idea insist it’s a simple matter of compassion and justice. But automatic restoration is not in the best interests of either felons or the general public. Let me explain.

Under Virginia’s current system, nonviolent offenders who have served their time face a two-year waiting period before their rights can be fully restored. (Those convicted of a violent felony — or drug distribution, drug manufacturing, crimes against a minor or an election offense — must wait five years.) The waiting period gives ex-cons a chance to “start over” and establish a track record of responsible behavior. And it gives the secretary of the commonwealth the opportunity to review each felon’s behavior since release to make an informed decision as to whether he has realized the seriousness of his past misbehavior and changed his ways.

Two years may seem a long time, but it takes years to establish a track record. A July 2012 report from the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) showed that nearly a third (32.6 percent) of all felons released in 2008 were convicted of committing another offense within two years. By the end of three years, two of every five (41.7 percent) had been reconvicted.

Another VDOC report from March 2011 points out that “offenders with less violent offense histories tend to recidivate at higher rates than do more violent offenders.” Indeed, nonviolent property offenders have “the highest re-incarceration rates,” according to the same study.

Given that such a large proportion of felons — and most particularly nonviolent offenders — are rearrested and reincarcerated so soon after ostensibly having “paid their debt to society,” Virginia’s waiting period is perfectly sensible. Pushing for the automatic restoration of civil rights for the group of offenders with the highest recidivism rate seems wrong-headed indeed.

Many advocates of automatic restoration seem reluctant to mention that voting rights aren’t the only rights forfeited by those who are convicted of a felony. In Virginia, as in most states, felons lose their right to run for public office, serve on a jury or be a notary public and own a gun. A restoration of civil rights by the governor does not restore gun ownership rights. That requires a separate petition to a local circuit court, and the court will restore that right only for “good cause.”

If felons deserve automatic restoration of their civil rights because they deserve “redemption and second chances,” shouldn’t all their rights be restored, including the right to own a gun?

If advocates truly believe automatically restoring civil rights helps “reintegrate” felons into civil society, why don’t they push for automatic restoration of the basic Second Amendment right to own and bear arms?

How can they be certain that a convicted felon will exercise his right to vote or serve on a jury in a responsible and trustworthy manner, yet not trust him to exercise his Second Amendment right responsibly? If a convicted forger or burglar will vote as conscientiously as a law-abiding citizen in close, local elections, why not trust him to handle a gun conscientiously?

People truly concerned with the well-being of felons and their successful reintegration into civil society would want the type of system Virginia has. Felons have, by definition, knowingly and intentionally violated the laws of society. A two- or five-year waiting period and a process that reviews their individual records since release gives felons the opportunity — and an incentive — to prove they are deserving of exercising their right to vote, serve on a jury or run for office. As shown by Virginia’s correction records, all too many of them fail that test and go back to prison.

Such an incentive can only encourage their rehabilitation. It should not be a “freebie,” restored automatically as though it has no value at all.

-Hans A. von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is a former vice chairman of the Fairfax County Electoral Board.

First appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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