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Virginia Democrats Dodge Action On Expungement, Again

Woman at microphone
House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring said at the beginning of the special session that expanding criminal record expungement was her top priority. She's leaving the session dissappointed, however, as Democrats from the House and Senate were unable to find a compromise on the issue. This photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

State lawmakers in the House and Senate are at a stalemate on how Virginians with a criminal record should get a clean slate. Democrats in both chambers say they have a similar goal -- making sure people get a second chance at life -- but their ideas about how to get there are vastly different.  

Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring said at the start of the special session that expanding eligibility for criminal record expungement was her top priority. Criminal charges and convictions often make it hard for individuals to find work, get loans, or get professional licenses. 

Right now, only Virginia residents who were acquitted or whose charges were dismissed by the prosecutor can request an expungement of their criminal record.

Herring introduced HB 4156, which would create a process for about 100 criminal offenses to be automatically wiped from the record eight years after the date of conviction.   

“And it’s automatic, so no one has to go through the process of seeking a pardon, then having to basically, most of the time, retain an attorney, and go through this court process, which is daunting,” Herring said. 

She said she is disappointed that her bill passed the House but wasn’t taken up in the Senate. It was instead combined with a much more limited Senate proposal. In the end, neither bills made it to the governor’s desk. 

“It's a little depressing to know that that was left on the table,” she said. 

A bill proposed by Sen. Creigh Deeds would allow the expungement of records for a handful of offenses, including misdemeanor marijuana possession and underage alcohol or tobacco possession, but not automatically.

The proposal would have allowed expungement five years post-conviction and only once court fines have been paid. It would still require individuals to petition a court to have those records thrown out. 

Deeds called automatic expungement a “pretty good goal” but said there are too many details left to comb through, including which crimes should be eligible for expungement, and how to deal with private companies that collect criminal background information. 

“Most background checks are done by private companies,” Deeds said. “Just because we say we're going to close the record and state police [aren't] going to have the information, that doesn’t mean the information which is out there on the web already isn't going to be available to somebody.”

The State Crime Commission studied expungements this summer and recommended legislation that was even more expansive than Herring’s bill. It included involuntary manslaughter and felony arson in the list of offenses that would be eligible for expungement. 

Sen. Scott Surovell was opposed to the commission recommendation.  

“I think the Senate Democratic caucus agrees that allowing people to have a second chance after they've shown good behavior for a period of time after conviction is something we definitely need to figure out,” Surovell said. 

But he said it’s extremely complicated.  

“There's a reason there are only two states in the country that have actually implemented automatic expungement,” Surovell said. 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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