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WV legislation gives nonviolent offenders new hope for employment opportunities

By ANDREA LANNOM

The Register-Herald of Beckley

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A law that allows people convicted of nonviolent felonies to petition a judge to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor went into effect Friday.

The West Virginia Legislature passed Senate Bill 76, the West Virginia Second Chance for Employment Act, with time down to the wire. It was the last bill the House passed the last official night of regular session, approved at 12:54 that Sunday morning.

Gov. Jim Justice signed the bill into law in April.

The bill’s goal is to improve employment possibilities for those convicted of nonviolent felonies. People convicted of these crimes can petition a circuit judge to reduce the charge if they meet certain qualifications such as not violating the law for 10 years after they finish their sentence.

The reduced misdemeanor status will still be reflected on all records related to the offense. If the judge sets the issue for hearing, all interested parties who filed notice of opposition shall be notified and the judge can hear testimony of witnesses and evidence of any other matter related to the petition.

If the judge grants that request and reduces the charge, that misdemeanor cannot be expunged and It will show up on a background check by an employer that the crime was reduced to a misdemeanor.

During floor debate on the bill, Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, shared a story from staff at Recovery Point in Bluefield.

“It’s a rugged, demanding program that they go through to try to recover,” Shott said. “It’s not easy on them. One thing I’ve gleaned from the ones who make it is they have an eternal hope that they can get their life back together. Oftentimes that hope is diminished by the fear that the felony conviction that brought them to Recovery Point will be a cloud over their shoulder forever.

“This gives them hope,” he later said. “It’s not a perfect bill but it’s a chance to have a felony reduced to a misdemeanor and let employers see what they’ve accomplished. It’s a step in the right direction.”

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