Expungement Council rally over failure to pass bill expanding criminal record sealing expansion

Published: Mar. 9, 2022 at 6:21 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - A group called The Expungement Council is rallying people in Charlottesville and across the commonwealth, asking for lawmakers to give formerly convicted criminals a second chance.

The council, and other organizations working to help formerly incarcerated individuals, have one message: Seal the criminal records of Virginians who are no longer doing time, so they can start over and lessen the likelihood of their return to the criminal justice system.

Martize Tolbert with The Fountain Fund was one of several people at a rally the council held in Charlottesville on Wednesday.

”I have clients right now that have driving charges who can’t work for Uber, because of this one charge that’s on his record,” Tolbert said. “He can’t get it expunged, he can’t get it dismissed, he can’t get it removed, and it’s holding him back from getting a second job and multiple incomes.”

Whitmore Merrick with Freedom for Felons also works with those who are trying to acclimate to life after conviction and incarceration. He said even when you’ve served time, a criminal record can haunt you for years to come.

“Housing, healthcare, food, childcare, anything that a person needs to be successful, the system has stripped us of that, to be honest with you,” Merrick said.

In 2021, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a law to allow some Virginians to seal their criminal convictions, but that law does not go into effect until 2025.

Cherry Henley knows what that lingering record can do to you. She founded Lending Hands to help other formerly convicted and incarcerated individuals adjust after spending time behind bars.

“My charge was over 20 some years or long, I have built my life back. I drive for the work police program for over 10 years,” she said. “I still run into the same dilemma. If I had to go look for a property today, I would not be able to do that, and I’ve given back many years, since this happened to me.”

That’s why she and others pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 564. It would make record sealing faster and more expansive, giving more people the opportunity to seal several criminal records. It would also have eliminated the lifetime cap on expungement, whereas current law only allows Virginians to expunge only two cases in their lifetime.

SB 564 passed in the Senate, but failed to advance in the House earlier this year.

According to Legal Aid Justice Center, the proposed legislation would have expanded eligibility for record sealing by 661,749 cases.

“I get so many people who call me and say, ‘I did this crime 10 years ago, I did my time, I want to have redemption and opportunity because of the state law,’” said Harold Folley, an organizer with the center.

Those chanting for change at the rally said record sealing that is fast and free can give someone a new shot at life.

“We’re all human, we all make mistakes, and I feel like they to give us a chance. A real chance,” Merrick said.

The group is calling on the lawmakers to allow the record sealing laws that are in effect to start in 2023 instead of 2025. It’s also encouraging lawmakers to make the entire process free.

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