RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam is speeding up voting rights restoration for formerly incarcerated people.

Northam said the change–while slight–is a step towards a more equitable criminal justice system. It comes as the General Assembly is pursuing more comprehensive reform.

Northam said Virginia is one of the only states that permanently disenfranchises those with felony convictions. Offenders can petition the governor to get their rights back but only after they finish probation.

Moving forward, Northam is allowing Virginians to vote as soon as they’re released from prison, though his office will still have to sign off on the rights restoration.

“Probationary periods could last for years but that’s also a time when individuals are living in the community,” Northam said. “If we want people to return to their communities and participate in society we need to welcome them back fully.”

In preparation for this policy change, Northam said more than 69,000 individuals were identified and processed for rights restoration.

Returning citizen Robert Thompson was one of them.

“By him signing that and giving it to me it’s like they’re actually looking at us like we are part of society and that is all we really want,” Thompson said. “We don’t want to be punished for the rest of our lives.” 

E Gorman III told 8News that he has been on probation for nearly 5 years. Thanks to this change, he’s planning to vote for the first time.

“It gives me a sense of pride,” Gorman said. “Not having my rights, I kind of felt like ‘I’m a felon so it really doesn’t matter’ and I wouldn’t really be in those political conversations but now I feel like my opinion matters more.”  

The announcement mirrors a push in the General Assembly that is already underway.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment that would restore the rights of convicted felons automatically upon release. To become law, the amendment has to pass again in next year’s session and win a majority in a statewide voter referendum.

“It is past time to make this automatic and take the governor’s discretion out of the process,” Northam said.

House Democrats shied away from the Senate’s approach, which would’ve allowed inmates to vote behind bars. Some feared it went too far to gain sufficient public support. 

“Yes, I think it is a good idea. I’m not sure that it would move forward in Virginia,” Northam echoed after his announcement on Tuesday.

Northam detailed the policy change at “Offender Aid and Restoration” in Richmond, which helps people re-enter society after incarceration.  

“This change will have a tremendous impact on the people we serve, enabling more Virginians to have their rights restored sooner,” said Sara Dimick, Executive Director of OAR of Richmond. “OAR is committed to removing barriers for those who seek to be contributing members of their communities, and we look forward to working with newly eligible individuals to ensure they can exercise their civil rights.”

Sen. Mark Warner praised the governor’s announcement on Twitter.

“I’ve said it before, men and women who have paid their debt to society deserve the right to rejoin our democracy,” Warner tweeted. “We can and should do this on a nationwide scale.”

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who restored voting rights to more than 173,000 Virginians during his term, also issued a statement of support.

“Here in the Commonwealth, for more than a century, this racist Jim Crow law that was enacted specifically to disenfranchise Black Virginians has done just that. This is a moral and civil rights issue, and one that speaks to the core of who we are as Democrats and as Virginians,” it said in part.