‘Political firestorm’

Published 7:37 pm Saturday, September 10, 2016

Calvin Prince is one of 191 Suffolk residents caught in a political firestorm over the restoration of the civil rights of convicted felons.

In the past year, Prince has applied to have his rights restored, had them restored, had them rescinded, then had them restored again. Now, political wrangling threatens to take them away again.

“I understand it’s a privilege,” he said. “What I don’t understand is how I can be a taxpaying citizen after I complete my sentences, and you’re still holding me back.”

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Prince was first convicted of a felony in 1973. His record, which included malicious wounding, robbery and drug charges, stretched to 1991.

He finished his last sentence in 1997 and came off parole in 2000. Since then, he says, he has found a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that will keep him from going back to his old ways.

“When I gave my life to Him, He refused to let me go,” Prince said.

The government, however, hasn’t been quite so forgiving. Despite the passage of time, Prince hadn’t been able to vote.

He applied last August to have his rights restored.

Earlier this year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a series of executive orders restoring the civil rights of more than 200,000 Virginians. Prince, and 190 other Suffolk residents, was among them.

“I felt I was given back something,” Prince said. “It was a ‘wow’ moment.”

But Republicans in the General Assembly sued McAuliffe, saying he overstepped his authority. The state Supreme Court agreed due to the “unprecedented scope, magnitude and categorical nature” of the order.

Republicans argued the move would favor Democrats. That’s not true all the way across the board, though.

“I’d rather vote for Donald Trump,” Prince said. “The moral issues come into play with my decision.”

Even so, Prince criticized Republicans. “The Republican Party wants to paint all of us with the same brush,” he said. “You cannot just arbitrarily discriminate against people who have served their sentences. You can’t lump all the people together and say none of them deserve it.”

Since the Supreme Court decision, McAuliffe has continued to re-restore rights to the same group of people by processing each person’s paperwork individually. Prince has been notified his rights have been re-restored, and he’s looking forward to voting in the November elections.

“That will be a great thing for me,” he said. “That shows that we have a voice.”

But the political and legal wrangling may not be over yet. Republicans continue to contest McAuliffe’s handling of the issue, and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican who represents a small part of North Suffolk, has proposed a constitutional amendment regarding the issue.

The amendment would provide for automatic restoration to those convicted of non-violent felonies after they have completed their sentence and probation and paid in full any fines, court costs and restitution.

“I believe those convicted of non-violent felonies deserve a second chance,” Norment stated in a press release. “This amendment would give them that opportunity. But, they would first have to complete all of the terms of their sentence, including paying their fines, court costs and any restitution.”

Jeff Ryer, press secretary for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus, noted the same provisions occur in a 2013 resolution introduced by Democrat Sen. Louise Lucas that passed the Senate by a large, bipartisan margin but died in the House of Delegates.

But Democrats now say the requirement to pay fines, court costs and restitution amounts to a modern-day poll tax and permanently disenfranchises thousands.

Delegate Matthew James, a Democrat who represents part of Suffolk, said everyone deserves a second chance.

“Once a person has served their time, and it’s a nonviolent offense, they should have the opportunity to apply to have the reinstatement,” he said. “We all had younger periods in our lives in which we did some things we’re not very happy with.”

Meanwhile, Prince and the thousands of others affected across the state are just waiting to see what happens next.

“What do you want, for us never to have any rights?” Prince said. “You expect us to behave civilly when you’re not going to do the same for us. We’re caught up in a political firestorm.”