Criminal record sealing workshop in RVA: 'It really penetrates every aspect of life'

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Posted at 6:41 PM, Jul 14, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- Nearly twenty years ago, Sheba Williams received probation for a non-violent felony conviction, a situation in which she maintains her innocence. Even to this day, despite following through with the court orders and not getting in trouble again, the record of that conviction hangs over many aspects of her life.

Williams, and an estimated 20% or more of Virginia's population who have a criminal record — approaching 2 million people, may be able have that record sealed from public view, under a new state law taking effect in 2025. It's complexity has her and other organizers already trying to reach those who could see their quality of life improved through records sealing.

Sheba Williams
Sheba Williams

"I couldn’t go on field trips with my kids, but I could be on like PTA. I could assist with things; I could do different things at the school, but they would run a background check for field trips," Williams said. “A lot of times it is, you know, what’s in black and white: nobody asks about the circumstances; nobody thinks about like the root causes of what happens and things like that.”

The non-profit Williams founded and runs, Nolef Turns Inc., is partnering with Justice Forward Virginia to host an educational workshop for those with a criminal record and those who will implement the new law in 2025 (attorneys, prosecutors, clerks, etc.).

The event is Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Main Library in Downtown Richmond at 101 East Franklin Street.

"There are people everywhere, frankly, who are going to be impacted by this law," said Rob Poggenklass, executive director of Justice Forward Virginia. "Landlords and, particularly, employers, almost all of them, go online, find somebody's case information, and then will just ignore that person, if they apply for a job, if they apply for housing.”

"It really penetrates every aspect of life," Williams said.

On its face, the new records sealing law will look similar to the current expungement process in Virginia. Expungement of criminal matters, where someone is found not guilty or the charges against them are dropped, requires taking action in court, a process that typically takes several months, experts said.

Justice Forward Virginia Executive Director Rob Poggenklass
Justice Forward Virginia Executive Director Rob Poggenklass

In 2025, some records will be sealed automatically, but many convictions for misdemeanors and some felonies will require a similar court petition process, experts said. You can read a summary from the Legal Aid Justice Center here.

"There’s so many caveats; it’s so complicated. That’s one of the big reasons why we feel like we need to start the conversation because you start the conversation and every step of the way there’s going to be 100 questions," Poggenklass said.

"We get a ton of questions; we get a ton of emails about eligibility and when things will be a go and how people will be notified," Williams said.

Saturday's event was planned in partnership with the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Office. Kelli Burnett, who leads their Community Justice Reform unit, said her office is fully behind the new law, but the first read of it, even for a prosecutor, leads to many questions.

"I think it takes some time," Burnett said. "When we see people who are not committing criminal offenses, who are seeking to be employed or have housing or be educated, those are things that promote public safety, and that is the thing we care about the most.”

Kelli Burnett, with the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Office Community Justice Reform Unit.
Kelli Burnett

"When we have prosecutors who are open to the process and willing to engage, this all goes a lot smoother for everybody," Poggenklass said.

Both Poggenklas and Williams said the state needs to do more outreach on the issue ahead of 2025. A spokesperson for Attorney General Jason Miyares' Office said their team "cannot advise individuals on legal matters," instead referring questions about outreach plans to the patrons of the bill or the Virginia Crime Commission.

Williams and Poggenklass both know personally, though for different reasons, the real life impacts of a criminal record hanging over a person who has paid their "debts to society."

"Some of my most memorable clients were, frankly, victims of domestic abuse who were wrongfully charged in the first place, ended up taking plea deals to avoid jail times because they had kids. Those criminal records stayed with them. Those are exactly the people we need to be helping," Poggenklass said.

"I know some great people who just happen to have justice involvement, who do amazing work, and they’re denied sometimes for things like opening a bank account," Williams said. "There are so many things tied up in having to answer the question around this record.”

The organizers said the plan to hold future workshops for both practitioners of the new law and those it impacts.

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