RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Nonviolent felons who finish serving their sentences and maintain a clean record after that will regain their right to vote and other civil rights on an individual basis without having to apply, Gov. Bob McDonnell said Wednesday.
McDonnell also is eliminating a two-year waiting period for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes to have their civil rights restored. Previously, they also had to apply; cases will now be automatically considered without an application.
"It really is a personal thing," McDonnell said at a news conference at a church near downtown Richmond. "I believe in an America of second chances."
The Republican governor was joined on stage by civil rights advocates and legislators from both parties, including members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, who have pressed for years to reform the state's strict process for restoring felons' rights.
"This is an important day," NAACP national president Benjamin Todd Jealous told a room packed with members of progressive organizations that have lobbied on the issue. "This is what the nation yearns for."
In Virginia, only the governor can restore felons' rights. McDonnell already has streamlined the process and has restored the rights of more than 4,800 felons, more than any previous administration, but the Sentencing Project says about 350,000 Virginians who have completed their sentences remained disenfranchised in 2010. Thousands of those residents could become registered voters in time for the November election as a result of McDonnell's new policy.
Violent felons will still have to wait five years and apply to regain their rights to vote, hold public office, and serve on a jury and as a notary public.
The announcement came a day after Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli released a report by an advisory committee he appointed in March to study restoration of rights. The panel concluded that the process could be improved by designating an executive branch agency to do all the legwork, working with religious and community groups to solicit and process applications for the governor's consideration. Cuccinelli said he liked the idea of outside help but preferred to keep the program in the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office.
Cuccinelli's task force said the Virginia Constitution does not allow the governor to issue an executive order restoring all felons' rights, and McDonnell's new policy stops short of that by continuing to handle each case individually.
"I wanted to use the maximum authority I had," McDonnell told reporters. "An executive order is probably beyond the scope of my authority."
He said the new process will eliminate subjectivity.
"Your civil rights in this country should not be dependent on the whims of one person," he said.
The change was welcome news for Darrell Gooden of Richmond, who was convicted of marijuana and cocaine possession in 2002. He said he applied to regain his rights in 2008, when Democrat Tim Kaine was governor, but was turned down because of a speeding ticket. He hasn't reapplied, and now he won't have to.
"I want my children to see that the American dream is not just a dream," the 40-year-old father of three said.
Attempts to amend the constitution to allow the blanket automatic restoration of nonviolent felons' rights have failed repeatedly, most recently in the 2013 General Assembly. The constitutional amendment, historically championed by Democrats, was backed by the Republican governor and attorney general this year but was rejected by the heavily GOP House of Delegates.
The ACLU of Virginia praised McDonnell for further expediting the rights restoration process.
"The governor will be giving voice to thousands of Virginians who have been denied participation in elections due to an antiquated and regressive voting law in the commonwealth," ACLU of Virginia board president Jayne Barnard said in a news release.
Virginia New Majority, an advocacy group, said it would follow up McDonnell's policy change - which is effective July 15 - with a voter registration drive.
"We're going to celebrate today, but we have to get right back to work tomorrow," said Jon Liss, the group's executive director. "We're making plans to ensure that people with nonviolent felony convictions will be registered in time for the November elections."
Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor, lauded McDonnell "for pushing his own reforms even further."
"We needed to simplify the process for those who want to regain their civil rights so they can return to full participation in society," he said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe called the change "an important step forward on an issue of justice for Virginians who have paid their debt to society."
McDonnell said he expects the next governor to keep his new policy.