Condemnation perpetuates a bad cycle

Published 9:44 pm Friday, July 22, 2016

On Tuesday, the Virginia Supreme Court began hearing arguments challenging Gov. McAuliffe’s historic order restoring the civil and voting rights to more than 220,000 Virginians. No one understands how important a step this was better than me.

Not only was I the architect of the restoration of rights order as Secretary of the Commonwealth, but I am also the son of a former offender.

My father made a mistake as a young man that followed him for the rest of his life. I remember being a child and watching him walk miles to find work, only to have doors slammed in his face.

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Condemning returning citizens like my late father for years after they have paid their debt to society only perpetuates the cycle that leads so many back into incarceration.

Those who have had their rights restored are not monsters. They’re Virginians. They’re Americans. They have completed their sentences. They have held up their hands and said, “I made a mistake, and I am asking for forgiveness.” They are trying to become responsible members of our workforce and our society.

But until the historic event that restored their civil and voting rights on April 22, they had no voice.

My father’s story is just one example of the struggles returning citizens face. Behind the numbers, there are stories.

I remember the Vietnam veteran, James Ray, who had his rights restored during my tenure as Secretary of the Commonwealth. James was convicted of a non-violent felony and cried tears of joy when his rights were restored. Under the process that was in place, he had to beg for his voting rights to be restored  —  rights he had risked his own life to protect for others.

In granting these rights, Virginia joined the majority of other states, which have said they will not tolerate a second-class citizenship.

Let us not kid ourselves: Refusing to allow citizens who have paid their debt to society to vote disproportionately affects the African-American community. An estimated one in five African-Americans of voting age had been disenfranchised in Virginia due to the restrictions on individuals with felony records.

We should be doing all we can to encourage people who have been through the criminal justice system to participate in civic society. If they do not feel included in society, if they do not have a voice, how can we expect them to fully re-enter our communities?

Yet there are those who believe this was not the right thing to do. Our friends across the aisle wasted no time lamenting the fact that this Democratic administration had made restorative justice a primary goal. Now, they have taken their case to the Virginia Supreme Court.

While the governor and I chose to stand up and make sure voices were heard, Republicans in Virginia are mobilizing over the idea that voices should continued be silenced.

What’s right is right. There is no political debate here, just Republican objection to moral conviction. The people of Virginia are a caring, compassionate, forgiving people. Being the home of second chances is preferable to being the home of discrimination and disenfranchisement.

Amid the backdrop of a national election where the Republican nominee is using the politics of division to preach demagoguery, we are offering unity, inclusion, and hope.

I challenge those objecting to this historic moment, one that moves Virginia out of a sometimes dark and discriminatory past, to take a different approach.

Instead of villainizing people who have repented for a mistake, get to know them. Understand their stories and their desire to be once again part of our community. Instead of trying to silence them, encourage them to engage in the process and help make it more democratic. Instead of telling them they shouldn’t be allowed to vote, go out and actually earn their vote.

As the first African-American Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I know firsthand that history is our foundation. It doesn’t have to be our anchor.

Levar Stoney was the first African American Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia and is a current candidate for mayor of Richmond.