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WV Senate committee passes bill to raise ex-cons’ employment chances

By JAKE ZUCKERMAN

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A bill designed to give convicted felons a better shot at stable employment was cleared by the Senate Committee on Economic Development on Wednesday.

The West Virginia Second Chance for Employment Act, or SB 76, would give convicted felons the opportunity to request a court to expunge certain non-violent felony offenses from their records after 10 years of good behavior.

The economic development committee passed the bill on to the Judiciary Committee for review before sending it on to the Senate floor.

A similar bill sailed through its Senate vote last year, but died in the House of Delegates in a narrow 54-43 decision to keep it buried in a minor committee, essentially blocking its passage.

Should it make it through this time around, a person convicted of a non-violent offense could petition his or her circuit court to expunge the charge from the record, so long as it is a primary legal violation.

Convicts could apply either one year after finishing their sentence or after completing all ordered probation, whichever comes first, under the bill. Following the 10 years of good behavior, the court would issue an order to expunge the criminal record.

The opportunity would not be available to violent offenders, criminals who used a firearm in the commission of a crime or to convicts whose offenses involved children.

Advocating for the bill before the committee, Pastor Matthew Watts, of the HOPE Community Development Corporation, urged the members to pass the bill. He said though most are not aware, there are 150,000 convicted felons in the state, equating to 10 percent of the adult population.

For that population — many of whom are non-violent offenders and will not commit another major offense — the felony conviction largely equates to a life sentence, Watts said.

“They’re marginalized when it comes to employment, and trapped, along with their children, in a permanent underclass, where they can be legally discriminated against for their entire lives,” he said.

The committee members, many of whom voted in favor of last year’s bill, expressed support for its passage.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, called the idea “forward thinking legislation” before offering his vote. However, he said he has concern about the legislation’s other chamber in regard to the bill.

“I hope we can wake up some of those knuckleheads in the house and they’ll give it some serious thought,” he said.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, expressed the same, and asked Watts to return to the House when they take the matter up to lobby.

“I would ask you to bring all the pressure you can bear on the House because this bill just died over there,” he said.

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, who stifled efforts to revive the bill last year, did not return requests for comment.

Speaker of the House Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, could not be reached for comment as well.

The Second Chance for Employment Act joins other current legislation navigating through the Capitol to support convicted felons’ reintegration. This includes HB 2380, the “Ban the Box” bill, which prevents an employer from inquiring about previous felony offenses until the end of the hiring process.

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