Ex-felon and Waynesboro resident gets his vote back, wants it for others like him

This article orginally appeared on newsleader.com

It was 1986 when Mercedies Harris’ life began to unravel.

It took prison time and repeated applications to the governor to fully pay his debt and become a full citizen again.

That process to restore the rights of felons after they’ve paid for their crime should be automatic, Gov. Bob McDonnell argued this month in his State of the Commonwealth address.

And on Tuesday the Virginia Senate’ Privileges and Elections Committee agreed, voting 10-5 to endorse a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that would give the General Assembly authority to determine which nonviolent offenses would be eligible for automatic restoration of rights after they’ve served their sentences. The measure now goes to the full Senate and then on to the House, where one panel has already rejected the idea.

The alternative is status quo, which Harris navigated and helps others navigate.

Harris' story

Harris’ long road to losing his rights and regaining them began in 1986.

That was the year Harris’ brother — coaxed down to Virginia by his older brother from Brooklyn, N.Y., on the promise of a better life— was killed in Alexandria. “He died crossing the street,” said Harris, who shared his brother’s birthday. “He died, and my life seemed like it died.”

That same year, Harris got arrested for possession of cocaine in Fairfax. In 1990, in Prince William County Circuit Court he was convicted on a second felony charge for cocaine distribution. In 1989, Harris’ father passed away. In 1990, his mother died, and jail officials briefly let him out to attend her funeral. “My whole life went tumbling,” Harris said.

Harris served six years of a 30-year prison term, but because of probation violations, he wound up spending nearly 14 years behind bars. “It took me awhile to get it right,” admitted Harris, now an ordained minister who lives in Waynesboro and works at the Friendship Church in Staunton. “You lose a lot through anger.”

While incarcerated, Harris said he earned his GED, learned computer skills and acquired an associate’s degree in behavioral health care.

Following his release from the Virginia Department of Corrections in 2003, Harris pushed forward, quickly earning the trust of management at the Valley Mall in Harrisonburg, where he was entrusted with keys to the entire facility while working on a cleaning crew.

“I had a made up mind,” Harris said. “There was no turning back.”

But while Harris was on the right path and became a productive citizen, past mistakes prevented him from having what many take for granted — his civil rights. He could not vote, hold public office, sit on a jury or serve as a notary public. “There’s no reason to keep this over my head for the rest of my life,” Harris said last week.

With his criminal past in the background, Harris decided to try and get his rights restored. It would be anything but smooth.

Virginia is only one of four states that continues to deny convicted felons their civil rights. Kentucky, Florida and Iowa are the other three. “It seems unfair to punish someone twice and punish them forever,” said Richael Faithful, an attorney with the Advancement Project.

Founded in 1999 by a group of civil rights attorneys, the Advancement Project has been working since 2003 toward automatic restoration for convicted felons. Faithful said in Virginia alone there are 350,000 people who are being denied their civil rights because of past felony convictions.

“We’ve reached a crisis level,” Faithful said. “It’s about 7 percent of the voting population that’s missing in Virginia.”

Last week, a GOP-dominated House subcommittee killed legislation to restore civil rights to nonviolent felons, rebuking McDonnell who surprised lawmakers by urging them to support the legislation, according to the Associated Press. Democrats have championed automatic restoration of rights for years.

“I don’t think we were surprised,” Faithful said of the setback.

But Faithful said because of broad support by the likes of McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, the issue of automatic restoration is no longer just a Democratic issue.

Under McDonnell, about 4,500 felons have had their rights restored, Faithful said. “He’s done remarkably well compared to his predecessors. But even at that rate, it would take him five decades.”

Although recent proposals only include nonviolent felons, Faithful said she would eventually like to see violent felons included. On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sent a letter to McDonnell urging him to issue an executive order to restore voting rights to those with felony convictions.

Under the Virginia Constitution, the ACLU said the governor, not the General Assembly, has control over the process for restoring voting rights to felons. The ACLU said the General Assembly can put a constitutional amendment to the voters. A constitutional amendment requires approval by two separate legislative sessions, including a House of Delegates election in between, before it can be put to a referendum by Virginia voters. If the legislature approves the change this year and in 2014, the ACLU said the amendment can be voted on in November 2014. If the Legislature doesn’t act this year, the earliest the amendment could be put to a vote would be November 2016, according to the ACLU.

The process for convicted felons to have their rights restored can be cumbersome, said Harris, who also helps care for his special-needs stepson.

At the time of his arrests more than 20 years ago, Harris’ offenses were considered nonviolent. However, state laws changed and eventually his crimes were grandfathered under felonies considered violent, meaning he couldn’t apply for rights restoration until five years from his release. Nonviolent offenders can apply after two years, he said.

With his court costs and fines all paid up with no further convictions, Harris set out to have his rights restored, which can only occur through a petition to the governor’s office. Despite three applications, he heard nothing back from the state. Finally, he said he was put in touch with the Advancement Project, which quickly got the ball rolling on his behalf. McDonnell, Harris said, also has been keen on the issue.

“He hired extra people to make sure this happened,” Harris said. The process is now being streamlined to take 30 to 60 days, he said.

At a September ceremony in Richmond, Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly restored Harris’ rights. In November, Harris voted for the first time in more than two decades. “I didn’t know what to do when you go in there,” Harris said, smiling.

With his rights firmly restored, Harris said he now hopes to help others facing the same predicament he found himself in not too long ago. Through a new organization dubbed “HollaBack and Restore,” Harris, with the help of the Advancement Project, will assist convicted felons seeking to have their rights restored. Harris said he hopes to have the clinic up and running by February, and said sessions are expected to be held at the Rosenwald Community Center in Waynesboro and Staunton’s Valley Mission.

“I’ve been there,” Harris said. “Let me help you through these steps.”

Tonia Cleek, just 18 when she was convicted of possession of a controlled substance in Staunton, is now 26 years old. Cleek said she has remained conviction-free for several years, but as a convicted felon her civil rights have not been restored. “I’m sitting here, completely rehabilitated, and people still judge me,” Cleek said.

“It’s like I’m being looked down upon. I don’t think it’s right.”

It’s people like Cleek that Harris hopes to assist. But what he really covets for his new project is a centrally located, donated piece of office space, be it from a local municipality or business leader.

“I need help to help this community and this society,” Harris said.