Former Virginia inmates call for automatic removal of past convictions as lawmakers debate how far to go

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Virginia lawmakers are trying to make it easier to remove certain convictions from criminal records but they’re still sparring over the details.

The House and Senate have both passed bills to reform expungement this session. As the chambers try to come to a consensus in the coming weeks, some former inmates fear neither bill goes far enough.   

At a rally on Monday, advocates continued calls for free, automatic and far-reaching expungement. They said it’s the only way to truly give former felons a second chance in society.

Sheba Williams claims she was wrongfully convicted of embezzlement in 2004. Today, she’s an advocate with the Virginia Expungement Council and the founder of Nolef Turns, a Richmond nonprofit that works to reduce recidivism.

“It keeps you from having access to housing, employment, social services programs. Everything in life revolves around your criminal background check and that’s a problem,” Williams said.

Eric Branch spent five years in prison for breaking and entering. He said he hasn’t had any new charges since 1992 but the stain on his record still prevented him from becoming a state trooper.

“At the hands of the system, I have been held back from many opportunities but I will continue to push for change,” Branch said. “If we try to turn things around, it will stop a lot of recidivism.”

Currently, state lawmakers say there is no process in place to expunge past convictions. Virginians can have charge dismissals removed from their record but only after going through a petition process in court.

Shawn Weneta, who was also convicted of embezzlement, described it as lengthy and costly.

“It cost me thousands of dollars and I was very fortunate to have those resources,” Weneta said. “Most criminal defense attorneys, they don’t know the process.”

“It should not cost an arm and a leg,” Williams added. “It shouldn’t require people to go through a cumbersome process that is very difficult to navigate without an attorney.”

A bill from House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) would automatically remove about 80 different convictions from criminal records after 8 years, as long there were no subsequent behavioral issues. She said the bill largely covers misdemeanors, though some felony drug convictions are also included.

Herring’s bill is modeled after the Virginia Crime Commission’s recommendation last month but she said the issue still needs further study.

For example, Herring said her legislation currently excludes domestic assault and driving under the influence but there’s discussion of creating a petition-based process for those convictions later on. It also doesn’t cover crimes of particular concern for many employers, including grand larceny and embezzlement.

Meanwhile, a bill from Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) applies to a much broader list of crimes but it would require most people to make their case in front of a judge, who would have the final say on whether to grant expungement.

“When you do things automatically, just like mandatory minimums, you remove any discretion from the system and you tend to be over-inclusive. There’s lots of unintended consequences that can flow from that,” Surovell said.

Surovell’s bill was considered over-complicated by some fellow Democrats when it was first introduced. It’s current form comes after three different proposals were merged together, including two that called for a more robust automatic process.

Surovell said no other state in the country has put in place an automatic expungement program before a petition-based one.

“I can guarantee that the Senate is not going to agree to an automatic program before a petition – based program,” Surovell said. “I feel like the House of Delegates is trying to go from one end zone to the other in one play instead of just getting to the 40 or 50 yard line and then we can talk about the next play after that.”

To address concerns over access, Surovell said his bill allows for the immediate expungement of charge dismissals. It also waives attorneys and petition fees for those who meet certain income guidelines.

“It does not go far enough and in fact it ignores the whole philosophy about giving people a second chance or a clean slate,” Herring said. “Someone who is trying to put food on the table for their family should not have to miss a day at work to go to court and get a clean record.”

Surovell estimated his bill covers 200 more convictions than the House version. He said his legislation includes misdemeanors, as well as Class 5 and 6 felonies. It also excludes DUI and domestic assault but–unlike Herring’s bill–it would allow for the removal of grand larceny and embezzlement convictions.

That went too far for many Republicans, who generally support expungement for a more limited list of crimes.

“Employers have a right to know if someone has been convicted of grand larceny or embezzlement,” Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said during the floor debate on Friday.

Both bills allow certain employers to access sealed records during the hiring process.

The Senate bill generally applies to jobs in childcare, K-12 education, law enforcement and federal positions that require a security clearance, according to Surovell.

In the weeks ahead, this issue is expected to be debated with urgency, as Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget allocates million of dollars to reform the expungement system in Virginia.

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