Court costs won’t block felons from restored rights

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A Portsmouth woman with a felony record may soon be able to vote again, along with thousands of other Virginians. She called Tuesday a historic day, after Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced new reforms to the restoration of rights process.

Ellen Tomiye said she went to prison 15 years ago for writing less than $4,000 in bad checks. “You know, it’s so easy to do wrong. It’s hard to get out of it once you do it … and I knew I was wrong,” she said.

Tomiye said she served almost three years in prison. “I thought that coming out I would be able to just go ahead on and just pick up where I left off … but no,” she said.

Tomiye said she paid her restitution, but has $24,000 in court costs that, according to her payment plan, won’t be cleared until 2047. That meant she couldn’t vote until 2047, she said. Last month, Tomiye talked about it to Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney.

“I said, ‘It’s not right.’ I said, ‘It’s like beating a dead horse. They need to take that off the table,'” Tomiye said.

Tuesday morning, Sec. Stoney called and told her that Governor McAuliffe had announced new reforms to the restoration of rights process. Under the new plan, outstanding court costs and fees will still have to be paid, but won’t keep someone from getting rights restored.

“I couldn’t say anything but, ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up, I’m driving! I’m going to run off the interstate, shut up!’ It was just, I couldn’t believe it when he said it because I didn’t think I would see it in my lifetime,” Tomiye said.

In a statement, Gov. McAuliffe said: “We have forced these men and women to battle a complicated and bewildering tangle of red tape to reach the voting booth, and too often we still turn them away.”

“We can’t be disenfranchising folks and holding them, because if you do that, those folks will go back, maybe commit more crimes,” McAuliffe told Tuesday. “If you keep people away and you don’t bring them in, you can’t build a community.”

Tomiye said it was tough finding work once she got out of prison. Now she owns two restaurants, and she wants to give back.

“It’s not just me that has a felony. I’m not the only one. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one. I feel alone, but I’m not. It’s a whole lot of other people just like me,” she said.

Tomiye said she knows it’s her obligation to pay her court costs and that she will. She sent in her application for restoration Tuesday. She will be at Mount Sinai Church Wednesday on Portsmouth Boulevard in Portsmouth from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., to help any non-violent felon not on probation or parole, who wants to file electronically for restored rights.

The governor’s office said people who have had their rights restored will now be able to note that in their criminal record.

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