In a blow to young Black and brown people caught in Virginia’s justice system, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he is ending the policy of automatically restoring the voting rights of people with felony convictions.
Virginia’s constitution, like that of Mississippi and many former slave states, contains Jim Crow language that disenfranchises people for life after a felony conviction. White state leaders designed the felony laws specifically to target the state’s Black population. Up until recently, Virginia’s leadership had veered away from the barbarity. It’s three previous governors, starting with Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell in 2013, automatically restored voting rights for people convicted of non-violent felonies after they paid their debt to society. The two Democratic governors that followed McDonnell, including Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, recognized the Jim Crow law for what it was and buttressed McDonnell’s decision. Both expanded voting rights for everybody who completed their sentence, nonviolent or otherwise, and enfranchised more than 300,000 Virginians.
Youngkin, who sold himself to Virginia voters as an “anti-woke” candidate, vowed to help Virginia youth by rooting out nonexistent critical race theory lesson plans from Virginia classrooms. He and most every other Republican candidate never explain exactly how this helps youth, other than possibly making white kids feel less guilty about the terrible, horrible crimes white people have committed throughout U.S. history, which included the behavior of its first president.
Now safely installed as governor, Youngkin has reversed his predecessors’ democracy-friendly policies by announcing he will personally decide whether to restore voting rights on a case-by-case level.
“Virginians trust the Governor and his Administration to consider each person individually and take into consideration the unique elements of each situation, practicing grace for those who need it and ensuring public safety for our community and families,” wrote Kay Coles James, a member of Youngkin’s cabinet.
Virginia ACLU Policy and Advocacy Strategist Shawn Weneta questions how keeping formerly incarcerated people from voting has anything to do with “ensuring public safety,” however.
“This has never been about punishment or public safety,” Weneta told Black Girl Times. “It has always been about political power. It has always been, and continues to be to this day, an effort to further disenfranchise Black and brown communities.”
Weneta himself served 16 years for embezzlement and forgery before being pardoned by former Gov. Ralph Northam, but he argues his sentencing judge never included voter disenfranchisement as part of his sentence. That, he said, was a legislative move. “Taking my right to vote is not about punishment. At no time did that judge strip me of my right to vote. That is not part of the sentence. It is not part of the penal code.”
Youngkin’s authoritarian play directly targets people who committed crimes as youth, and he is using human biology to surgically remove Black and brown voters from the political process, particularly those from troubled or impoverished backgrounds. Several studies reveal the biggest mental differences between youth and adults is the development of the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for judgment, reasoning and—most notably—impulse control. Research shows the human pre-frontal cortex remains in development until the early to mid-20’s, making it more likely for young adults to commit felonies because they do not have an advanced sense of consequences. Other studies show 18 to 21-year-olds have prefrontal brain activity that looks more like that of younger teenagers than of seasoned adults. These biological factors aggravate additional snags affecting young minds living in economically challenging conditions and broken homes.
“We know what the science says about brain development and the ability of young men and women to make forward-thinking, appropriate choices. Then if you add in that many of these kids come from marginalized Black and brown communities and their economic background, oftentimes they didn’t start out with good chances to begin with,” said Weneta.
Most state’s juvenile justice systems are focused on rehab methods over punishment specifically because young minds are still under development and incapable of fully comprehending how certain actions lead to certain outcomes. That rehab focus largely evaporates for persons convicted after the age of 18, however, and a felony at that age lingers on an adult’s record for the rest of their life, even though the average time served by state and federal prisoners released in 2020 was only three to five years.
Making Youngkin’s anti-democratic policy even more racist is the fact that the Black incarceration rate in Virginia has increased 121% since 1978, according to reports. In 2017, Black people were incarcerated at 4.2 times the rate of white people. They comprised 53% of the state’s prison population despite being only 20% of the state’s overall population. The rate of disenfranchisement of Black men older than 18 in Virginia flourished under these conditions, with 1 in 5 being unable to vote due to the lingering Jim Crow stain on the state’s constitution. That rate had dropped to 1 in 10, thanks to the efforts of the previous three governors. Youngkin’s policy could easily reverse those gains.
And while Virginia Secretary of State Kay James(R) assured legislators “the governor firmly believes in the importance of second chances for formerly incarcerated individuals,” the Virginia ACLU is warning that Youngkin has yet to publicize his process for handling enfranchisement applications.
“The Youngkin administration’s failure to disclose the criteria by which it will review incarcerated people’s applications for the restoration of their voting rights is hugely concerning,” said ACLU-VA Policy Director Ashna Khanna. “Unlike previous administrations, which were transparent about both eligibility for restoration and the process they would use, the Youngkin administration appears content to leave Virginians in the dark.”
The ACLU added the applications of “thousands of people released from prison during Gov. Youngkin’s time in office … is still pending more than a year later.”