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Crime Commission Recommends Automatic Expungement For Some Crimes

Woman at podium
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) during the 2019 special session. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

The Virginia Crime Commission is recommending the General Assembly pass legislation to automatically erase certain misdemeanors and felony convictions from criminal records after a certain period of time has passed. 

The commission discussed a proposal Monday to expand expungement eligibility in Virginia. Lawmakers debated whether records should be automatically expunged or whether people should have to petition to have their records thrown out. 

Either way, the records would remain available for prosecutors and law enforcement who are vetting new hires but won’t prevent people from getting a job, housing or receiving government benefits. Right now in Virginia, people with no prior criminal record can petition to have a misdemeanor charge expunged as long as they were found not guilty or the charge was dismissed. 

According to the Restoration of Rights Project, Virginia is one of only nine states that doesn’t allow people to expunge criminal convictions.   

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), who is expected to carry the legislation once it is filed, said if someone has committed a crime and paid their debt to society, it is important that after a specified period of time that they have the ability to clear their record. 

“I want every one of us to imagine the stigma that comes with having something on your record,” Herring said. “Every time you apply for a job to feed your family, your heart pounds wondering if that will be the reason you’re denied a job.”

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he wants to make it easier to expunge records in the commonwealth. But he doesn’t want to make that process automatic. 

“Automatic expungement to me is like a mandatory minimum sentence, in that it doesn’t take into account the circumstances of a situation,” Surovell said. 

Surovell added that he’s concerned with the current list of convictions that his Democratic colleagues want to make eligible for automatic expungement, including felony arson, an offense that he says correlates to sex offenses later in life. 

“I think you need to keep certain convictions on people’s records for a certain period of time because I think they can be a signal of things to come,” he said. 

Del. Les Adams (R - Pittsylvania) opposes legislation to expand expungement eligibility in the state.  

“We are clearly moving from a victim-centric approach that wants to make sure that the victims are made whole, that public safety is protected to a different goal here,” Adams said. 

The Senate has a handful of bills that allow a person to petition for the expungement of criminal records if they have been granted a simple pardon for the crime. The legislation would also allow a person to petition for an expungement related to convictions of marijuana possession, or underage alcohol consumption before they were 21. 

When Democrats took control of the General Assembly this year, they largely deferred criminal justice reform, including expungement, to 2021.