July 15, 2013
The door is open for tens of thousands of nonviolent felons in Virginia to regain their right to vote.
"I think it would make a difference to somebody who wouldn't even know you could do it," said Jim Hingeley, the public defender for Charlottesville and Albemarle. "And here, the government is offering a helping hand."
On Monday, the state outlined the criteria for felons to be able to cast a ballot in future elections: 1) completion of their sentence, probation or parole; 2) payment of all court costs, fines, restitution, and completion of other court-ordered conditions, and 3) have no pending felony charges.
Advocates of this measure say that's where one problem is. Paying off court costs can sometimes take years once someone is released.
"It would be much preferable in my opinion to have automatic restoration when you finish serving your sentence because that's when people are ready to come back into the community," Hingeley said.
An estimated 100,000 disenfranchised felons are eligible.
Gary Wilson, a re-entry program manager for Charlottesville-based OAR, works with many former felons. It's a passion of his after working in a prison some 20 years ago and is also inspired by his past.
"Who knows why we do the things we do. I made the choice to smuggle contrabands into an inmate, and it turned out to be drugs," he said.
Wilson spent 60 days in jail for a felony. His rights were taken away, and for him, the struggle to get them back wasn't worth it.
"I looked at the paperwork one time and I thought, 'Nope, this isn't for me,'" he said. "'It's too much trouble.'"
Now, that paperwork is gone. Wilson said he agrees that restoration should happen upon release from custody, but he says it's a positive step forward.
"It's hard to be out there trying to re-establish yourself," Wilson said. "So to be able to get your rights back just adds one more thing that makes you feel you're on your way back."
The state is hiring additional workers to assist with the restoration of rights and relying on advocates to spread the word.