criminal justice reform

Virginia Lawmakers Move Forward to Seal Some Misdemeanors After 7 Years

"We shouldn't be paying for a crime for the rest of our lives," said Sheba Williams, the founder of Nolef Turns, a nonprofit organization advocating for the "clean-slate" legislation

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Virginia lawmakers agreed on a bill that would automatically expunge nine different misdemeanor charges after seven years and a clean record.

The so-called “clean slate” legislation would seal certain misdemeanor charges, including marijuana possession, underage alcohol possession, minor theft, trespassing and disorderly conduct.

“We shouldn’t be paying for a crime for the rest of our lives,” said Sheba Williams, the founder and executive director of Nolef Turns, a nonprofit organization working toward criminal justice reform. “They won’t have to live with this thing forever that takes away from voting rights, employment (and) housing.”

For Williams, this legislation is personal. She was fired from her job at a hospital after she was convicted of a nonviolent felony — a crime she says she didn’t commit.

She then got a job at a barbershop, but that was also stripped away when her license was revoked.

“I had to sit without my license and my means of taking care of my kids — I was a single parent at that time — for 16 months,” Williams said.

Now, her organization’s top priority might soon become law.

“If people turn around their lives, the least that the state can do is give them a second chance,” said Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring.

The bills would also allow other, more serious misdemeanors, along with some felonies, to be sealed if the individual petitions it in court.

Williams says that especially for people of color, this is a step toward righting years of injustice.

If approved and signed by the governor, the automatic expungement won’t take effect until 2025. It would still take years to develop a system to seal those records.

“This is huge. I think this is a mark in history that we won’t soon forget, because it’s a turning of the tides,” Williams said. “We know there were so many harms in the past that we have to rectify.”

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