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Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Along with The Roanoke Times (“A faster path to a second chance,” June 3 editorial), I applaud Gov. Bob McDonnell for easing the way for convicted, nonviolent felons to regain voting and other civil rights. However, I must also notice that the Virginia legislature with the approval of the governor almost simultaneously enlarged the definition of violent felons with SB 1214.
This brings up two strong personal objections to the governor’s current actions.
First, there is certainly a large measure of duplicity when our governor expanded the definition of violent felony at the same time he acted to give nonviolent felons easier access to regain their voting rights.
My second objection involves the history of incarceration of black men.
Nationally, they are incarcerated at a rate of one in 15. For white men ages 18 and older, the incarceration rate is one in 106, according to the National Institute of Justice.
This is known as institutional racism and allows policies to be enacted that result in higher arrest rates, conviction rates and sentencing severity of black men over white men. Think of racial profiling by police, overtaxed public defenders who do not always do their job and a lack of sophistication by defendants to make plea deals as examples of some of the aspects of racism that lead to this inordinate over-incarceration of black men.
Also think of the results of racism whereby a large percentage of black males cannot vote, and if convicted of a violent felony, will probably never regain their right to vote.
The governor could reverse this Jim Crow-type of disenfranchisement of black men with a swipe of his pen, but not if he also manages to enlarge the category of men whose rights will not be easily restored.
Virginia is one of few states that allow the governor complete control over restoration of rights to convicted felons. We need to rectify this by a constitutional amendment to change the process.
Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, sponsored a bill this year that would allow for amendment of the state constitution to remove the power of the governor to restore voting rights to felons. Under this constitutional amendment, all felons who serve their time, pay their fines and fulfill all orders of the courts, including probation, would then regain their civil rights.
This would go far in removing the smoke-and-mirrors actions motivated by politics that our current governor wants to employ.
It would also remove some of the long-term effects of institutional racism in the criminal justice system. It will not remove all “Jim Crowism” in Virginia, but it is a start.
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