Students and community members packed Hopwood Auditorium Wednesday night to learn about Virginia’s progress toward “restorative justice.” Virginia leaders hope to help more former inmates participate in society and build better futures for themselves, said guest speaker Levar Stoney, secretary of the commonwealth.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe assigned Stoney to lead Virginia’s efforts to streamline the process of restoring voting rights to people who have felony records but who have served their sentences. He also co-chairs the governor’s commission that is reviewing the Commonwealth’s policy on parole.
Virginia is one of a handful of states where convicted felons lose their voting rights and only regain those rights by petitioning the governor. More than 400,000 people currently cannot vote because of their criminal records, although they have completed their sentences, Stoney said. “We put ourselves up to be a first-class state, yet we have one of the highest rates of second-class citizens – one of the highest rates of disenfranchisement,” Stoney told his audience at LC. “We’re a better commonwealth than that.”
Virginia’s last governor, Bob McDonnell, made great strides toward restoring voting rights to more people, and Gov. McAuliffe has increased the pace, said Stoney. McAuliffe’s administration has decreased the amount of time most inmates must wait before applying for voting rights, simplified the application process, and removed financial barriers to the restoration of rights.
Another policy change added voting rights restoration to the results of a background check in hopes that the notation will help businesses be more apt to hire a person who has made positive strides despite an earlier felony conviction. Also, the administration removed criminal record questions from Virginia government job applications, and Stoney encourages private businesses to do the same. A criminal record may still be a factor in a hiring decision, but it should not prevent a person from getting an interview, Stoney said.
Stoney and the governor continue to look at other criminal justice reforms that would enable more people to fully participate in society and leave mistakes behind them, he said.
“We understand that the sands of the hourglass are flowing through by the minute, by the second,” Stoney said. “What we want to do is take every moment possible and use that moment for the betterment of Virginians.”
Stoney was invited to LC by Dr. Lindsay Michie, faculty advisor for The Black Student Association.