Virginia’s decades-old barrier crime laws are facing a federal court challenge
Virginia legislators have spent years failing to reform restrictive barrier crime laws. Now, the state is being sued over them.
At issue are decades-old statutes that prohibit many providers — mostly those licensed by the Department of Health, Department of Social Services and Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services — from hiring applicants with certain criminal histories. Some of the same laws are shared by other states and the federal government, which prohibits sex offenders, for example, from working with children.
But there’s broad consensus, including among the agencies affected, that Virginia goes above and beyond in the length and restrictiveness of its barrier crimes laws. DBHDS, for example, lists 176 convictions that disqualify an applicant from working in behavioral health — including unrelated crimes like pointing a laser pointer at a law enforcement officer or setting a field on fire.
So-called barrier crimes also include a long list of drug-related offenses. In practice, the laws prevent many Virginians with past convictions from ever working in substance abuse recovery and related fields — even if they’ve served time in prison and spent years in recovery themselves.
“The departments admit that this law is keeping out applicants with valuable experience,” said Andrew Ward, an attorney handling the lawsuit for the Institute of Justice, a nonprofit law firm based in Arlington. “So it’s not protecting the public. It’s just depriving people going through really hard times from having a qualified and sympathetic counselor.”
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.
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