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CHARLESTON — Thousands of West Virginians may be able to have their nonviolent felony and misdemeanor convictions removed from their records thanks to a new state law that went into effect Friday.

Senate Bill 152, passed during the 2019 regular session, expanded a law passed in 2017 permitting people with certain convictions to petition the court to have the conviction expunged from their record. Most nonviolent felonies now qualify and age of conviction no longer matters in misdemeanor cases.

A person must wait to petition the court until they are out of prison and off parole for five years for felony convictions, and one to two years for misdemeanors. Preliminary expungement can be sought after three years. However, if eight or more years have passed upon their release, a person can obtain final expungement 90 days after filing his or her petition.

Crimes involving minors, use of a deadly weapon, driving under the influence and others are not subject to expungement under the bill.

The hope is the new law will remove barriers to employment for people whose job applications are often summarily denied due to having a criminal conviction on their record. Additionally, employers who previously could not hire people who are otherwise qualified will have a bigger pool of potential employees.

Jaimee Kimble, of Kanawha County, said she plans to petition to expunge her criminal record.

"I plan to petition because even though eight years have passed since my conviction, and I'm far from the person I was when I got in trouble, I am still stigmatized and labeled for a mistake I made when I was 21 years old," Kimble said in a news release. "I've put in so much effort to put my life on track and not re-offend, but I continue to face setbacks because of that conviction."

Sen. Glen Jeffries, D-Putnam, lead sponsor of the bill, said in the release he was pleased the law was approved in 2017.

"This is one step in giving individuals a second chance, whether with a misdemeanor or a nonviolent felony charge," he said. "There are still safeguards in place and charges that are not eligible for expungement. I believe this is the right step to help create better job opportunities and help our workforce participation in West Virginia."

Petitioners can only file for expungement once, so Lida Shepherd, with the American Friends Service Committee, said it is imperative potential petitioners know they are eligible and that they have all the necessary paperwork in order. Filing fees are also non-refundable. For petitioners in financial need, a financial affidavit can be filed along with an expungement petition. Petitioners can file using an attorney or by themselves as a pro se litigant. The expungement process can be daunting, Shepherd said in a release, and attorneys caution that there is no substitute for sound legal counsel.

Legal Aid of West Virginia, American Friends Service Committee, American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, Mountain State Justice, Kanawha County Public Defender Office and statewide Re-Entry Councils are collaborating on efforts to educate petitioners, lawyers and judges about the new law. Free legal clinics are also being planned.

More detailed information is available on Legal Aid of West Virginia's website at lawv.net. Expungement forms will be available on the West Virginia Supreme Court's website.

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