Why Governor Youngkin changed the process for Virginians to have their rights restored

Posted at 5:56 PM, Apr 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-11 17:57:00-04

RICHMOND, Va. — When Duane Edwards applied to have his rights restored in 2006 after finishing a sentence for a felony conviction, he had to fill out a 13-page application and send three references.

“If it got denied, they didn't tell you what it got denied for, and then you can reapply for another year,” Edwards said.

Dating back to Governor Bob McDonnell (R - Virginia), the previous three administrations worked to streamline the process of restoring a formerly incarcerated person’s rights once they completed their sentence, any probation, and paid back fines.

Virginia is one of two states where voting and other civil rights are not restored automatically when someone completes a felony sentence, experts said.

Last month, it came to light that Governor Glen Youngkin’s administration had changed the process, requiring people to apply to have their rights restored.

The Virginia Constitution gives the Governor’s office the sole authority to restore someone’s civil rights.

Edwards now works with formerly incarcerated people wanting to restore their civil rights.

“A few weeks ago, I had to tell somebody at the barber shop in Fredericksburg, Virginia, like no, I don't think you can get your rights to vote,” Edwards said. “If you’re going to do a policy that moves Virginia backward, Virginia needs to stand up and stop that.”

Democrats have criticized the Republican governor's decision, saying Youngkin did not notify the public about the policy change and has yet to publish or discuss the criteria by which his administration is determining which applications get approved.

“The governor may have the legal authority to do what he's doing. The question is, does he have the moral authority to do what he's doing? And the answer should be no,” Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth), the House Minority leader who had his rights restored years ago, said.

Youngkin, who faces a lawsuit over the policy change defends the move.

At an event in Petersburg on Tuesday, the Governor said the application process is required by Virginia law and a previous court ruling.

“Our Constitution and a [Virginia] Supreme Court ruling in 2016 made it very clear that what I have to do is give every formerly incarcerated Virginian individual review. That’s what we’re committed to do, and it hasn’t been happening,” Youngkin, who added the Department of Corrections provides information about the process for restoration, said.

“[Returning citizens] also get clear instructions on how to get their rights restored. In fact, they acknowledge it. This process is one that I think is part of the comprehensive transitions services that we should be providing,” Youngkin said.

The administration had previously said the policy change reflected the need to protect the public and community while also providing “grace for those who need it.”

When asked, Youngkin did not provide specifics on criteria his administration is using in approving applications for restoration of rights.

“Each circumstance is going to be slightly different because of the individual characteristics of every individual. That’s why when they apply they help us with a whole bunch of information that we otherwise don’t have,” Youngkin said.

Edwards had two kids once he got out. He said he taught them to correct any mistakes they make but also shows them forgiveness.

“I'm not going to hold it against them every day since then. This is a message that we teach our kids, so why are we treating each other like this?” Edwards said.

Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) helped bring this issue to light after sending a letter to Youngkin’s Secretary of the Commonwealth requesting information on their restoration process.

Both Spruill and Youngkin confirmed they plan to meet on this issue Wednesday when state lawmakers return to Richmond to consider Youngkin’s vetoes and amendments on dozens of bills.

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