By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
RICHMOND — Bob McDonnellis trying, at least cosmetically, to turn the “law-and-order”Republican Party on its head. So far, his effort is falling flat.
But while the GOP-dominatedHouse of Delegates rebuffed his call to automatically restore the civil rights of non-violent felons who have served their time and paid their debt to society, the governor is part of an emerging alliance on the right.
For proof, look no further than Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the presumptive GOP pick to succeed McDonnell. The tea party darling testified Tuesday in favor of Democrat-sponsored SJR 266, along with the ACLU and the Catholic Conference.
McDonnell’s kinder, gentler GOP has a policy center, the Texas-based Right on Crime, which is promoting judicial and penal reforms that have heretofore been the exclusive property of the Democratic Party.
Among the group’s priorities is weeding out some of the 4,000 federal laws that criminalize such activities as importing orchids without the proper paperwork, failing to return library books and — gasp! — shipping lobster tails in plastic bags.
The warehousing of criminals, as well as the social assimilation of ex-inmates is a problem as large as those massively growing populations.
Right on Crime researcher Vikrant Reddy notes that 38,130 Virginians are in state prison, and about 60,000 more supervised under parole or probation. That means 1 in every 89 adults in the Old Dominion is under some form of “state correctional control.”
But, wait, there’s more. Add county jail inmates and federal offenders residing here, and you get 1 in 46 citizens in correctional status, Reddy estimates.
Some states have even higher ratios. And that has opened up entrepreneurial opportunities for privatized prisons and other ventures that have been the bread and butter of Republicans.
But Right on Crime suggests that a tipping point has been reached. Such GOP luminaries as Jeb Bush, Bill Bennett and Newt Gingrich are highlighted on the Right on Crime website. Tax-phobic Grover Norquist is there, too.
In its Statement of Principles, Right on Crime says, “Conservatives correctly insist that government services be evaluated on whether they produce the best possible results at the lowest possible cost, but too often this lens of accountability has not focused as much on public safety policies. As such, corrections spending has expanded to become the second fastest growing area of state budgets — trailing onlyMedicaid.
“Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending. That means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety.”
Right on Crime says “a clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders — making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”
McDonnell has worked the back end of the system by restoring civil (voting) rights to a record 4,423 non-violent ex-felons. He believes that making this process automatic will reintroduce useful and engaged citizens, as opposed to “enemies of the state” stripped of rights and spoiling for more trouble.
The governor may be right about this piece of the reform process, but Right on Crime has not endorsed his initiative. Nor have House Republicans.
Their chief concern is with the word “automatic.”
“There’s a way to do this, but not automatically,” said Delegate Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, an attorney who chairs the Courts of Justice Criminal Law Subcommittee.
Delegate Jackson Miller, whose Privileges and Elections Subcommittee killed a rights-restoration proposal Monday, said he, too, fully supports the restoration of civil rights on a case-by-case basis.
But the Manassas Republican points out that quirks in Virginia’s criminal code make a blanket definition of non-violent offenders impossible, or at best nonsensical, when molesting a child or firebombing an unoccupied church are classified as “non-violent” crimes.
If such issues were ironed out, Miller said he would go further than McDonnell and consider restoration of all constitutional rights, including the right to own a weapon.
Cynics may dismiss McDonnell’s gambit as a diversion from issues like gun control. His proposal could just be a little old-fashioned political horse-trading. The governor’s $3.1 billion transportation-funding plan could use Democratic votes, but its sales-tax increase is anathema to that party.
If the governor can garner enough support from the other side of the aisle, he might get his way on transportation and taxes this session. And the felon-rights legislation — which requires to approval of two successive General Assemblies and a vote of the people — will wait for another day.
Craig Brians, an associate professor of political science at Virginia Tech, said he was “surprised” that McDonnell pushed the felon-rights issue, “but only to the extent that one assumes he was planning on it passing. It is costless for a politician to propose something they know will fail.”
As for that standing ovation the governor received for his State of the Commonwealth pronouncement, Brians said “His party members would hesitate to oppose him in a speech, but feel comfortable voting against him in committee.”
Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, gives McDonnell credit.
“The governor has talked favorably about the restoration of voting rights since he took office. People support and oppose initiatives for all sorts of reasons … sometimes for personal reasons. This may very well be a case where, given his personal (Catholic) religious beliefs, the governor has a strong view about the role of redemption, and is translating that view into his support for the restoration of voting rights.”
Kidd, who also chairs CNU’s Department of Government, added, “Politically, it wouldn’t hurt the governor to take this position amongst his base … they aren’t going to abandon him over this. But it may help make him look a little more centrist to independents.
“And, if he gets this passed, it will be a part of his legacy.”
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward