Creating a “Commonwealth of Opportunity”

Published 10:14 am Saturday, November 16, 2013

by Gov. Bob McDonnell

[Editor’s note: This op-ed piece initially was published in The Virginian-Pilot, and is being reprinted with permission from the governor’s office.]

In 2011, the Jones family was forced out of their apartment after the building was condemned. Suddenly the family, with their savings stretched, was faced with the previously unthinkable: homelessness. Today, they are renting a good apartment and looking to buy their first house.

In another part of Virginia, Tamio took the vocational skills he learned in prison and opened his own successful business; he now returns to the facility where he was once imprisoned to teach inmates the same work skills that turned his life around.

Michael was matched with a loving, adoptive family at age 17 after being in the foster care system since he was 8 months old.

John is battling an untreatable illness but, with his civil rights recently restored, voted this November for the first time.

As we approach the conclusion of our administration, the Jones family, Tamio, Michael and John – some names have been changed to protect privacy – are just some of the faces of the “Commonwealth of Opportunity” we have tried so hard to build over the past four years.

Most Virginians are familiar with the state’s successes. The unemployment rate is the lowest in the Southeast; we have been named the “Best State in America” for business; thousands more slots are available for in-state students at our universities; budget surpluses are the norm; and we passed the state’s first long-term transportation funding plan in 30 years.

But it’s in other, less-visible areas, like homelessness prevention, prisoner re-entry, restoration of civil rights and the promotion of adoption, that we find what I believe to be some of the most enduring progress.

When we took office, we set a goal of reducing homelessness by 15 percent. We maintained funding for shelters, while also investing in rapid re-housing, permanent housing, preventative strategies and greater access to mental health treatment.

By the beginning of 2013, homelessness was down by 16 percent, and the homeless rate for families with children was down by 17 percent. Today more Virginians, like the Jones family, have their own places to call home.

One of our priorities in public safety has been prisoner re-entry. As a former prosecutor, I believe individuals who commit crimes must serve their time and take responsibility. But we are also a nation of second chances and redemption.

Recognizing that the vast majority of offenders will return to their communities, effective prisoner re-entry programs reduce victimization, prison costs and crime. We are working with offenders to address issues such as substance abuse, aggressive behavior, mental health, family integration and work skills.

Today, Virginia has the nation’s second-lowest recidivism rate and is a national leader in innovative re-entry efforts.

We all know one of the keys to a successful life is a strong and loving home. Research shows that when children age out of the foster care system at 18, they face an uncertain and often troubling future.

Within two years, two out of four of these children are incarcerated, and one out of four is homeless. That’s heartbreaking. We can do more to find good homes for every Virginia child.

That’s why we started the “Virginia Adopts: Campaign for 1,000” to find loving families for 1,000 children waiting in our foster system. As of today, this successful effort has matched almost 900 children with permanent families. At this pace, within a few years we will have more families waiting for children than children waiting for families. When children find the loving “forever” families they need, our entire commonwealth benefits.

Similarly, our entire commonwealth benefits when we help our fellow Virginians to fully rejoin society and participate again in the life of our democracy. Once someone has done their time and paid their financial penalties, they should automatically regain their constitutional right to vote.

That is why we created Virginia’s first-ever automatic restoration of civil rights process for nonviolent felons. To date, almost 7,000 rights have been restored, the most by any governor. Our democracy is stronger when more participate.

Working across party lines, we’ve accomplished much for Virginia. Both parties and branches of government share credit.

But statistics and percentages can tell only so much. The Jones family has a home again. Tamio has his own business. Michael has a family. And John has a vote. They are the faces of this “Commonwealth of Opportunity,” and they are the stories I will remember well beyond my time as governor.

BOB MCDONNELL is governor of Virginia.