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In US, a bid to restore vote for nonviolent felons

July 15, 2013

RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) — The door opened Monday for tens of thousands of nonviolent felons in one U.S. state to regain the right to vote — part of a national trend to restore a basic civil right.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has said up to 100,000 disenfranchised felons ultimately could be added to the voter rolls, serve on a jury or hold political office.

McDonnell, a former prosecutor, said that by offering past offenders the opportunity to resume their lives as productive citizens, “we can better keep them from committing another crime and returning to prison.”

States are recognizing that the denial of basic rights to offenders serves little societal good, said Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice.

“Legislatures across the country the country over the past 10 years have been making laws more expansive and more open,” Perez said.

The Sentencing Project, a rights advocacy group, estimates that about 350,000 Virginians remained disenfranchised in 2010. Virginia was among six Southern states in which more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised, and one in five African-Americans are disenfranchised.

The task will not be easy. Virginia has no database of past felons, and no electronic records were kept before 1995.

For nonviolent offenders to retain their civil rights, they must have completed their prison sentences, probation or parole; have no outstanding fines, restitution or court costs; and have no pending felony charges.

Felons convicted of a violent crime will still have to wait five years and apply to regain their civil rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, while commending the governor for the progress in restoring voting rights, is critical of the pace of efforts to restore rights to ex-prisoners. It said less than 10 percent of the 100,000 eligible nonviolent offenders would be able to vote in the next election.

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