Former Offenders' Rights Are Being Restored

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV)-- Governor Terry McAuliffe announced earlier this month that he restored rights to more than 5,000 former felons in Virginia.

The Commonwealth has traditionally been one of the most restrictive states in restoring ex-offenders' civil and voting rights. It means that these former offenders can now vote, serve as jurors, hold public office and become notaries. One ex-offender, Mercedies Harris, had his rights restored in 2012, and is helping others get theirs back.

Harris has many awards hanging on his walls, but there is one document he is especially proud of.

"This is the one....the one that gave me back my rights," said Harris.

That form guarantees his civil and voting rights, something he lost decades ago. This all stemmed from a tragedy he had to endure; the death of his brother.

"I started to medicate my situation by using marijuana, drugs, drinking and just trying to cope with what happened," said Harris.

Shortly after, on the same day his mother died, Harris was convicted for possession and distribution of drugs...and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

"My life went spiraling from that became prison walls," added Harris.

He was there for 16 years. But Harris emphasizes that the hardest part of adapting to life outside of prison is being marked as a felon.

"I had to find myself and it's hard doing that when you're hungry, homeless, and you don't have a job," said Harris.

He was able to make his fresh start in Waynesboro. A former restaurant owner took a chance on him. After that, Harris decided to start the process of restoring his rights.

"The application was tedious and very long, said Harris. "It was over 14 pages long."

After three tries he got his rights. He then focused his life on his company that helps others restore their rights. Harris wants you to understand that you can still turn your life around

"At any given time, anyone can become a felon," emphasized Harris. "You don't have to be a criminal to be a felon, you just have to make a mistake."

He's hoping people can make a new life in spite of their mistakes.

Before the change, there were 14 pages of forms requesting information and many steps before turning in the application. But now, it's all downsized into one page streamlining the process.