Long deadlocked, Virginia lawmakers reach compromise to seal past criminal convictions

Long deadlocked, Virginia lawmakers reach compromise to seal past criminal convictions
A police officer walks into the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond. (Source: Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Democrats in the House and Senate have been at odds for more than a year over dueling proposals to allow people convicted of certain crimes to have their criminal records sealed.

On Wednesday, lawmakers in the two chambers announced they’d finally resolved their differences.

“We’ve come to a strong compromise that reimagines our criminal justice system to remove barriers and address systematic inequities to provide a clean slate for Virginians who have paid their debt to society,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.

The legislation would allow the automatic sealing of nine misdemeanor convictions after seven years, provided the person has not been convicted of any other crimes. The offenses include underage possession of alcohol, use of a fake ID, petit larceny, trespassing, disorderly conduct, possession of marijuana and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

The bill would allow more serious charges — misdemeanors through Class 5 felonies — to be sealed through a petition-based process that would require a judge to review and sign off on the request. As with the automatic process, the legislation requires the person not to have been convicted of any other crimes for seven years in the case of a misdemeanor and 10 years in the case of a felony.

Advocates, who have argued lingering criminal records pose long-lasting barriers to employment and housing, applauded the agreement.

“As a person who’s had to navigate through numerous collateral consequences following my conviction, having a sealing process for past convictions ensures that everything I accomplish in the future will no longer be minimized by my past,” said Sheba Williams, the executive director of Nolef Turns, in a statement. “History no longer begins and ends with my conviction.”

Rob Poggenklass, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said that if the bill passes, “Virginia will move from the bottom of all 50 states to very near the top for a person’s ability to seal criminal records.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.