HARRISONBURG — As a convicted felon, James Weathers can’t vote in Virginia.
But, if Gov. Bob McDonnell has his way, the 58-year-old Gemeinschaft Home resident might have his civil rights restored automatically when his sentence for driving under the influence and price altering is complete.
The governor used part of his State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday night to call for legislation to change the way Virginia handles the restoration of civil rights for nonviolent offenders.
“I think it’s a great thing,” said Weathers, who spent roughly two years in prison before being sent to the halfway home on Mount Clinton Pike. “They’ve been talking about it for a while. It’s important that we get the right to vote.”
While potential legislation would include restoring the right to vote, it’s unclear how that would affect gun rights.
During his speech, McDonnell said the state already has worked on making the process more efficient, but it still needs more work.
“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,” the governor said in his address at the Capitol on the first day of the 2013 legislative session.
Currently, Virginians who committed nonviolent offenses must wait two years after their sentence and probation ends before they can apply for a restoration of their rights. All fines and court costs must be paid before rights can be reinstated.
Virginia is one of the rare states where offenders have to petition the governor to have their rights restored.
Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said the first question he had when he heard the governor’s proposal was how to define a nonviolent offense.
Hutcheson questioned where some crimes, such as involuntary manslaughter as a result of a car crash, for example, fit in. He said that’s something legislators will have to clear up.
“I think that’s going to be the issue and I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as you think,” Hutcheson said. “I think you’re going to find some gray areas.”
Rockingham County Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst said she hasn’t decided whether she’d support a quicker path to restoration.
“I would certainly want more details before I would support the restoration of rights to convicted felons,” Garst said.
But defense attorney Michael Araj said the change is needed, adding that the people whom the proposed change in the law would affect aren’t hardened criminals.
“A lot of these people have been productive members of the society for a long time. … They have jobs, they have families,” Araj said.
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or email@example.com