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‘Second chance’ employment bill sent to WV House floor


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A bill designed to improve ex-convicts’ employment opportunities made it out of a House of Delegates committee Wednesday, but not until the bill was weakened by eliminating a provision that could have completely removed some felony charges from a person’s record.

The amended West Virginia Second Chance for Employment Act (SB76) would allow ex-convicts, after completing their sentences and proving several years of good behavior, to petition in court to reduce certain nonviolent felony convictions down to a misdemeanor level.

The West Virginia Senate unanimously passed a version of the bill in March that would have allowed courts to expunge the offenses entirely. Members of the House Judiciary Committee changed that Wednesday, before sending the bill to the full House.

According to staff counsel’s testimony at the hearing, if the new version of the bill passes, ex-convicts would not need to report a felony conviction on employment applications if they successfully navigate the process to reduce the charges. However, the felony conviction could still come up in background checks as a felony conviction.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said most states already have a felony expungement program, and that this bill has already passed through the Senate two years in a row.

“The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of people who commit crimes do not spend the rest of their lives in prison, and we want them to work, we want them to pay taxes, and we want them to be able to provide legally for their families, and that’s what the intent of this legislation is,” he said. “I think it will help a lot of people.”

Delegate Riley Moore, R-Jefferson, said the bill takes a measured approach to bringing West Virginia into line with other states in terms of progressive approaches to rehabilitating criminals.

“We want to eliminate recidivism, which costs us money and which has a negative effect on our state’s economy,” Moore said. “I think that also a life sentence of unemployment is certainly something that we’re all going to pay for one way or another.”

Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, said the bill “takes the concept of justice and it brings in other concepts that should be a part of the law like mercy, grace and reconciliation.

“This is a bill that restores people back into our communities, into the workforce, into the taxpaying roles, and it has a number of safeguards built in to make sure that it’s done so in a responsible manner,” Lovejoy said.

But Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, said his personal experience told him the bill would work against employers.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s an effective measure for us to do,” Foster said. “…I’ve done this in my course of employment, hired people and tried to give them a second chance. I’ve done it multiple times, and the outcome of that, every time I tried to do it, it was not successful.”

Foster was the only committee member to speak against the bill, though a few voted against it in the voice vote.

Under the bill, certain non-violent felony offenders could petition the court to reduce a charge. That would not include people convicted of crimes involving a gun, sex acts, driving under the influence, the victimization of minors or other more serious offenses.

The bill’s prospects this year are uncertain. Last year, the House voted at the end of the legislative session to bury the bill in committee, effectively killing it. This year’s legislative session ends Saturday, and if the House approves the bill, the Senate would have to agree to the House’s changes before then.

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