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Restoring Rights

Restoring the Rights of persons with felony convictions

by Lillie Branch-Kennedy

Lillie Branch-Kennedy, of the Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged, a partner of Thousand Kites, wrote this article for the Virginia Defender.

On Nov. 3, 2009, Virginians will head to the polls to vote for governor and many statewide
legislators. How20far has Virginia come in restoring the rights of persons with felony
convictions to enable them to vote this year?

Will you be able to vote and make a difference come November? Will a record number of
Virginians with a prior felony participate in the process, or will they continue to be denied
and disenfranchised?

Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights,
proclaims that, prior to the Civil War, African- Americans were almost totally disenfranchised.
Even after enactment of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right
to vote, many states=2 0continued to use various methods to prevent African-Americans from voting,
including literacy tests, poll taxes, the disenfranchisement of former inmates, intimidation,
threats and even violence!

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a new beginning for African-American citizens. For
the first time, the federal government required
states to comply with the 15th Amendment.
However, lifetime disenfranchisement of former felons continues today in two states: Virginia
and Kentucky!

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “The United States is the only democracy in which
some people who have served their sentences can still lose their right to vote. Approximately
4.7 million people in the U.S. cannot vote because of a felony conviction.” Of these 4.7 million
people, the Commonwealth of Virginia accounts for 350,000. These convicted felons, most
of whom were convicted of nonviolent offenses, are productive citizens, assets to society,
are in our communities, have paid their debts to society, earned a second chance in almost
all aspects of their life, yet remain disenfranchised for life. Virginians should be outraged!
Currently in Virginia, all persons convicted of a felony, regardless if the felony was a
or violent offense and received five, 10, 20 or even 40 years ago, must apply through
a lengthy process directly to the governor, who has the sole discretion whether to restore
their rights. If the application is denied, the applicant must wait two years to reapply.

Many civil rights organizations and faithbased advocacy groups continue to work,
both legislatively and through the governor, to remove barriers to voting in
Virginia faced by people with felony convictions. During the 2009 General Assembly
session, several bills were proposed for the automatic restoration of voting rights.
Unfortunately, all “FAILED.”

Action Call by Resource Information Help
for the Disadvantaged (RIHD)
and Prisoners and Families for Equal Rights and Justice (PAFERJ)

Contact your state legislators today in support of automatic restoration of civil rights
for persons with a felony. Article One, Section Six of the Constitution of Virginia provides
that “all men, having sufficient evidence
of permanent common interest with, and
attachment to, the community, have the right to suffrage ….” Therefore, we a sk that you contact
the governor in support of doing away with the expensive bureaucracy of past administrations
and increase the likelihood of successful reintegration for our returning neighbors by
simply restoring the voting rights of felons upon their release from prison.

RIHD & PAFERJ provide filing assistance
with the Restoration Voting and Civil Rights
application every Tuesday and Thursday from 4-7 p.m. Other organizations such as the
Virginia Organizing Project, Re-entry Initiative
and others provide similar services, both in
Richmond and throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. If you or anyone you know continues to
be disenfranchised of their civil rights, please contact us20for assistance and/or for service
location in your area. For additional information and how you can help, call or e-mail Lillie (Ms. K) Branch-Kennedy (RIHD) at (804) 562-2123 or rihd23075@aol.com.

Lillie Branch-Kennedy is the founder and executive director of RIHD and a
rights representative on the Continuations
Committee of the Virginia People’s Assembly.

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