This is not in your grandfather’s Republican playbook: forgiveness toward felons.

But Gov. Bob McDonnell is on pace to restore the civil rights of more people who’ve done their time than any governor in modern Virginia history.

Republicans would scald a Democrat who did that as being soft on crime. But for McDonnell, a former Virginia attorney general elected as law-and-order candidate, it moderates the hang-’em-high image that endeared him to supporters and appalled his opponents.

At 27 months into the single, non-renewable four-year term Virginia allows him, McDonnell has restored rights for 2,888 felons. Democrat Tim Kaine restored 4,402 felons’ rights in four years, more than 1,500 of them in his final year in office.

“I believe in second chances. I believe when you’ve paid your debt to society, our goal should be to generate productive citizens who don’t come back to prison,” McDonnell said in an Associated Press interview Friday. “We’ve all made mistakes in our lives.”

His motive, in part, derives from his days as an attorney in private practice in Virginia Beach.

In Virginia, as in most states, a felony conviction brings with it the lifetime loss of some basic rights, among them the right to vote, to hold public office, to sit on juries, become a notary public and to own firearms. A time-killing bottleneck forms when thousands of requests await one man’s attention.

“Before I became attorney general, I represented a couple of people trying to get their rights back and it was the most agonizing process,” McDonnell said.

“We’d never get answers. It would be a year, year and a half, and then the answer would usually be no, and that was under Democratic and Republican governors. I thought this system is not working well. It’s just too slow and too cumbersome,” the 57-year-old governor said.

But it was never anything McDonnell stressed in his 2009 campaign. It’s never been high on any GOP election-year platform. Republicans have even overplayed the hard-on-crime line. In 2005, Republican Jerry Kilgore contended his Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, Tim Kaine, wouldn’t enforce Virginia’s oft-used death penalty. In an ad that overreached and backfired badly, the father of a murder victim complained bitterly that Kaine would even spare Adolf Hitler from execution.

What Kaine and his successor, McDonnell, have in common is they are Virginia’s first two Roman Catholic governors, and both are mindful of the church’s opposition to capital punishment. Kaine allowed executions to proceed, as has McDonnell, despite faith-based teachings to the contrary.

Forgiveness for the repentant and reformed is a necessary counterbalance for those known best as being hard-nosed.

“I think they’re both right. Justice is a fundamental tenet of our society, but so is forgiveness and rehabilitation, and I strongly believe as a former prosecutor that when people victimize other people, they have a debt to society that must be paid,” McDonnell said. “But ... if you give somebody right out of prison a pat on the back and a one-way bus ticket with no support structure, the chances of them failing go up.”

Restoring felons’ rights, however, is typically a cause Democrats have championed. Democrats introduce legislation to make the process easier, done through a routine administrative process rather than exclusively by executive fiat. Republicans usually shoot it down.

“If the General Assembly wants to put together some sort of structure for automatic restoration, particularly for some non-violent felons, I’d want to work with them on that,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell took office in 2010 and, with little fanfare, charged his administration with accelerating the process, vetting applicants through the secretary of the commonwealth, Janet Vestal Kelly, and his legal counsel, then providing applicants a response within 60 days.

The standards for submitting an application are substantial, and the paper chase is daunting. People convicted of non-violent crimes including forgery, bank fraud, embezzlement fraud and shoplifting can apply for restoration two years after they’ve finished their sentences provided they’ve paid all fines, restitution and costs and steered clear of all trouble with the law. The letters requesting restorations must be accompanied by numerous court forms, documents and letters of reference. It’s even more demanding for people who committed violent crimes, sex crimes, robbery, drug distribution or manufacture or election fraud. They have to wait at least five years for a chance at restoration.

Restorations aren’t pardons — also exclusively the prerogative of the governor in Virginia — and they don’t expunge a criminal rap sheet. A governor can reinstate all civil rights except firearm ownership. For that, generally, one must ask a judge.

As the word spreads of McDonnell’s expeditious handling of restoration requests, he said, the pace of applications is quickening.

“I suspect I will do far more than any other governor. So many people had given up because they thought they’d never get a yes. Now that they see that we’re doing a high rate of approvals, more people are now applying,” he said.


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