Virginia lawmakers gave final approval Friday to legislation that will allow people convicted of certain crimes to have their criminal records sealed, a move supporters say will help remove obstacles to obtaining jobs, housing, education and other opportunities for thousands of Virginians.
The legislation will set up a system for automatically sealing nine misdemeanor charges after seven years if the person is not convicted of any other crimes during that time. Charges eligible for automatic sealing include underage possession of alcohol, simple larceny, disorderly conduct, trespassing and possession of marijuana.
It would also allow people convicted of other misdemeanors and certain felonies to petition the court to request that those records be sealed. A judge would have to review and approve those requests. For felonies, the law would seal records after 10 years, provided the person was not convicted of any other crimes during that period.
Driving under the influence and domestic assault and battery convictions are not eligible for sealing under the legislation.
The legislation also creates a process for employers to access sealed records for certain types of jobs, including law enforcement, childcare or jobs that require a national security clearance.
“It's a major change in Virginia policy," said Sen. Scott Surovell, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill. “I think the bill will allow a lot of people to get a clean slate, move on with their life.”
Democrats in the House and Senate reached a compromise on the legislation earlier this month.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring originally pushed a bill that would have automatically sealed records for more than 150 misdemeanor and felony charges after eight years, arguing that requiring people to petition the court for expungement of their records is a burdensome and sometimes expensive process.
Herring has said the legislation removes barriers and addresses “systematic inequities” to “provide a clean slate for Virginians who have paid their debt to society."
Virginia has been among the most restrictive states when it comes to sealing criminal records. allowing it only in limited circumstances, including if the person is acquitted after a trial, if a charge is dropped or dismissed, or the governor issues a pardon because the person was wrongfully convicted.
“This is an important step towards eliminating the punishment that persists well after anything assigned by a judge is completed,” the Legal Aid Justice Center said in a statement.
The legislation now goes to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he views expungement as a critical part of criminal justice reform.
“We worked closely with legislators from the House and Senate to pass this legislation, and Gov. Northam looks forward to it reaching his desk,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said Friday.