Like every other human behavior, crime has consequences, and not only for victims and their families. Perpetrators eventually find out that a criminal record can be a major impediment to getting a job, housing or educational benefits. Efforts currently underway in the General Assembly to automatically expunge certain criminal records in Virginia are an attempt to reduce or eliminate those consequences. But legislators should proceed with caution.
Under current law, police and court records are expunged only if a person has received an absolute pardon for a crime he or she did not commit, or in cases where the person has been acquitted or the charges were dismissed.
However, there’s a big difference between that and the automatic and indiscriminate expungement of criminal records just because a certain time has passed.
HB 5146, patroned by Del. Charniele Herring, D–Alexandria, would automatically expunge criminal records for various misdemeanor and even some drug felony convictions after eight years of good behavior, excluding sex crimes and those that come with increased penalties for subsequent convictions, such as domestic assault and battery.
An alternate Senate bill, SB 5043, patroned by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D–Bath, would allow certain non-violent offenses such as alcohol, tobacco or marijuana possession convictions to be expunged after a five-year waiting period provided the offender has paid any outstanding court costs.
The problem with automatic expungement is that criminal records are public records, and law-abiding Virginians have a right to know if the person they’re considering hiring, renting a room to, doing business with, or leaving their kids with has a criminal past.
Even those who admit they made a mistake and have since demonstrated that they have mended their ways do not have a right to a “clean slate.” After all, a bankruptcy or a bad credit score—even if it wasn’t your fault—will follow you around for a long time, too, and also affects your future prospects. Why should a person who deliberately chose to break the law get to erase the past when a law-abiding Virginian who merely fell on hard times cannot?
A business owner has the right to know if the bookkeeping job applicant was ever convicted of fraud or larceny. A landlord has the right to know if a prospective tenant has a criminal history of selling illegal drugs.
Interestingly, Herring’s bill would not apply to ex-offenders applying for employment with the State Police, a local police or sheriff’s department, or a sensitive position related to national security—an acknowledgement that hiring somebody with a criminal record for a law enforcement job is an inherently bad idea. Yet her bill would keep the general public in the dark about the backgrounds of these same individuals.
A Senate substitute bill was unanimously rejected by the House (0–95) on Oct. 7, and a House substitute bill was unanimously rejected (0–36) by the Senate, so the legislation is currently headed for a conference committee. But this is obviously an issue that needs much more thought and more crucially, public input than a virtual special session can provide.
Yes, having a criminal record can be a major drag on an ex-offender’s ability to get ahead, and yes, they should be given a second chance after they have paid their debt to society. But that should only be done with society’s full knowledge and consent—not by hiding their criminal past from an unwitting public.
The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star
Editor’s Note: Editorials shared from other publications do not always represent the views of The News Virginian, but are offered in an effort to spread information and share different opinions.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!