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Gov. McDonnell wants to restore some felons' rights. That's just.

Date published: 1/20/2013

WHENEVER a politician pushes for something contrary to his party's normal position, it's notable. Gov. McDonnell's proposal to automatically restore the rights of citizenship to nonviolent felons is just such an issue. Now if only his GOP colleagues could see the justice in it.

Mr. McDonnell, in his State of the Commonwealth address, said, "As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society once they have served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution. It is time for Virginia to join most of the other states and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic proc-ess for nonviolent offenders."

In fact, Virginia is one of only two states that strip felons of their rights forever unless the governor restores them. This governor has been doing that at a rapid clip: Three years into his administration, he has restored the rights of 4,400 felons, approving 90 percent of the applications presented to him. This is a record-breaking gubernatorial performance, and it represents the keeping of a campaign promise.

Now, Mr. McDonnell would like enshrined in the state constitution the automatic restoration of rights for nonviolent offenders who have served their time and made restitution. This requires two trips through the General Assembly and voters' affirmation in a general election. His idea squeaked through a Senate committee (where Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, voted against it) but died in a House subcommittee dominated by Republicans (Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, opposed the bill).

Why did Republicans fail to support the governor's idea? Some evidently don't want to back a cause traditionally associated with Democrats. Others, such as Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, object to the "automatic" provision of the bill. Mr. Gilbert wants felons to keep petitioning the governor. "These are folks who haven't exhibited much personal responsibility in their lives," he said on the House floor.

But why these spiteful hoops for people who already have served their court-issued sentences? Is creating a permanent cadre of second-class citizens really a good idea?

It's doubtful, given the House subcommittee vote, that Mr. McDonnell's idea will gain further traction this legislative session. But kudos to him for pushing the issue. It's time restoration of rights was moved beyond politics and into the realm of what is simply just.

Those "red-blooded" Republicans who oppose the bills should check their bona fides. It's hard to "out-conservative" Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and he supports the idea. "Someone steals $200 and permanently loses his voting rights," he scenarioed. "I think that's just too much."

Wouldn't most Virginians agree with that?