A criminal record, however slight, can be a Scarlet Letter that an ex-offender can never shake. Background checks have never been easier to obtain because of the Internet. Combine this with a rapid increase in negligent hiring/housing lawsuits and successful reentry of ex-offenders post incarceration or community supervision has never been tougher. Without proper employment or housing, studies show that ex-offenders are much more likely to return to their criminal pasts, making our communities less safe and denying these individuals a real opportunity to contribute economically to society.

Recently, 41 states and the District of Columbia have passed 155 bills geared at breaking this recidivism cycle. Specifically, many states have attempted to combat the barriers ex-offenders face post-release with legislation that would seal criminal records for certain low-level offenders with minimal criminal records. These “second chance” proposals legally allow ex-offenders to deny their criminal record on job, housing, and licensing applications, while at the same time keeping the record available to prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, and certain sensitive fields for legitimate purposes.

For example, in West Virginia, a bill (HB 2604) was proposed during the most recent legislative session that would allow ex-offenders convicted of a non-violent felony the opportunity to have their criminal record expunged by agencies in possession of the criminal records, but only sealed in the court to allow prosecutors their use in subsequent criminal proceedings.

Currently in West Virginia, expunction of criminal records is only available to ex-offenders convicted of any misdemeanor. HB 2604 would expand eligibility to ex-offenders convicted of a non-violent felony offense (or offenses arising from the same transaction).

Relief under HB 2604 is only available for non-violent offenders who have never been previously or subsequently convicted of any other offense (other than minor traffic violations). Moreover, the petitioner cannot be the subject of an arrest or any other pending criminal proceeding during subscribed waiting periods and during the time the petition is pending. These safeguards ensure that eligible petitioners have only made one mistake, paid their debt to society, and have proven they are capable of being on the straightened path and are ready to provide for themselves and their family. HB 2604 also allows employers and housing managers the opportunity to hire or lease to these qualified applicants without the fear of future litigation.

Lawbreakers must take responsibility for their actions. However, at a certain point it is imperative to allow these individuals the chance to redeem themselves. Smart reform such as HB 2604 provides this chance while at the same time ensuring the safety and economic growth of our communities.