CHARLESTON — It's been more than a month since Senate Bill 152, dealing with the expungement of criminal convictions, became law in West Virginia. Yet a key component of the legislation — the creation of state-approved classes to help expedite the expungement process — remains a work in progress.
The wait may be over soon; according to officials with the state Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Resources, the two state agencies responsible for putting the classes together, the programs will be up and running later this month.
Senate Bill 152, which was introduced during the regular legislative session and sponsored by five Democrats from southern West Virginia, not only expands expungement eligibility with criminal convictions, but also makes a variety of technical changes that alter the way applications are filed, examined and approved.
The new law allows for expungement of nonviolent felonies, multiple misdemeanors and single misdemeanor convictions that do not depend on the age of the person who committed the crime. This change is allowing many who had previously been ineligible to explore expunging their record of convictions.
According to Legal Aid of West Virginia, which is working alongside the agencies involved and those seeking expungement, the process involves asking a court to remove or seal something from one's criminal record, thus making it no longer visible to the general public.
Typically, people seek expungement for employment and housing reasons.
"Essentially, if you go through this process, you found you qualify and the court grants the expungement, it is under the law as if the offense never occurred or the proceedings never occurred," Kate White, access to services manager at Legal Aid, said, adding that there are limitations involved in the law.
According to Meredith Thomas, another attorney with Legal Aid, petitioners are only allowed to expunge one felony, unless they have multiple that occurred in the same series of events. The law also does not get rid of what may be found online or on commercial criminal background checks that may not update quickly.
Other limitations include the types of crimes that are permitted to be expunged, which relies heavily on whether or not the facts and circumstances of a particular case are in accordance with the expungement statute itself.
The Legislature crafted a list of very specific crimes that cannot be expunged, including any that involve murder, sexual offenses, DUI convictions or driving on a suspended license, to name a few.
Any convictions related to attempts or conspiracy to commit any of the specific crimes cannot be expunged either.
"It's wide. It's a wide range," Thomas said. "You need to talk to a lawyer about the specific offense or conviction to see if it can be expunged."
One of the other conditions of the law is the time factor. Those wanting to expunge their criminal records have to wait a certain period of time before they are able to start the process, and they can only apply once.
"For single misdemeanors, it's one year. For multiple misdemeanors, it's two years and for a felony, it's five years," Thomas said. "That is a lot shorter than the previous expungement laws."
Alongside this law is the ability for petitioners to shorten their waiting times. Those wishing to expunge can participate in approved job-readiness or recovery and treatment programs - part of the "Jim's Dream" program started by Gov. Jim Justice to curb the drug abuse epidemic in the state - and by doing so, can cut their waiting times significantly.
The wait to start the expungement process for a single misdemeanor drops from one year to 60 days, for multiple misdemeanors from two years to only one, and for felonies from five years to three.
Lorrie Smith, lead coordinator for the Department of Education's Office of Diversion and Transition programs, said the department has been working alongside the DHHR to learn about the new expungement law and compile its list of approved adult learning courses that can be taken to lower waiting times.
"We have a huge booklet that's going to be available in print and shared," she said. "We've been working with Legal Aid to come up with these details, but the list of approved programs and training will be in this booklet, and it's huge, so there are lots of options, and most of these options are anywhere from 30 days up to two years."
According to Allison Adler, director of communications with the DHHR, the list of approved recovery and treatment programs should be ready this month, but she could not give an exact date.
People who have medical documentation that show a history of substance abuse will be able to take these classes once they are available.
The Department of Education's courses will include a variety of programs, including their adult education programs, advanced career education programs, and career and technical education programs.
Clinton Burch, executive director of the Office of Governor's Economic Initiatives, said the adult education programs give those who do not have a high school diploma or GED the chance to achieve the equivalent by going to an adult learning center to where they receive help and one-on-one tutoring.
"If you already have your high school diploma, you can also attend there and take a four-week (course)," he said. "It's like customer service, soft skills that someone would possibly need to go into the workplace, like your basic how to answer the phone, how to conduct yourself professionally and how to put together a professional resume."
Another option for people who already have a high school diploma or GED is taking the advanced career training courses that focus more on specific types of career training or skill sets. These classes can include a variety of topics and can be as short as six weeks or as long as two years.
Smith is also working to create what are called "transition agents," who will be like career coaches who can sit down with people individually to figure out what course of study would be best suited for their particular situation.
Eleven of these agents have been hired around the state and will be ready to provide services the week of July 15. They will be located at either a local workforce office or community and technical college.
For those looking to expunge convictions, Legal Aid advises talking with a lawyer before applying due to the complexity of the process.
"You have one chance at this, and so that's why it's really important that if someone is thinking about filing to make sure they've got all their ducks in a row, that they qualify and that they've got all their information together," White said.
For information on how to file, what documentation is needed, costs and how Legal Aid of West Virginia might be able to help, visit http://www.lawv.net/Resources/Self-Help-Library/Individual-Rights/Expungement-of-Criminal-Records.