Having practiced criminal defense in Virginia for over a decade, you don’t have to sell me on the idea that we need massive changes in our criminal justice system. In my mind, there’s no question that our laws disproportionately affect the impoverished and minorities. Too many people are in jails, and our discovery rules (the rules of which an accused gets to “discover” the evidence against him) lag way behind many states.

And this flawed system is not due to lack of concerted efforts by a diligent criminal defense bar and local legislatures. I personally know attorneys and law makers who repeatedly push for changes in the system.

That said, I think one area that could lead is in the right area of a focus on Virginia expungement law, which is truly archaic. It’s also an area that I believe is generally misunderstood by the public, and there should be room for movement even from the most conservative crowd.

Expungements are just plain difficult to get in Virginia.

As I’ve written before, to be eligible for expungement in Virginia, an accused has to essentially have been acquitted of their charge (or had the case dropped by the government). And even after that, it’s the accused’s duty to file an expungement petition where, in the most serious charges, the accused maintains the burden to demonstrate that a court should actually grant the expungement.

It goes without saying if you’ve been convicted of any crime in Virginia (misdemeanor or felony) your record is permanent. Period. Too often, I’ve had people call my office to discuss expunging a charge stemming from decades ago when they were virtually a different person. And unfortunately, that decade old charge prevents them from moving on. Despite that, I have to be the bearer of bad news.Changing Virginia's expungment laws.

What happened to the adage of “paying your debt to society” and moving on?

If someone has been convicted of a charge and complied with their court requirements, I simply don’t understand the absolutely permanent label bestowed upon them by a Virginia charge. It’s often touted that those labeled as criminals need to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” and find work. However, because criminal convictions are permanent in Virginia, we are requiring those who have paid their debt to society to serve a life long sentence regardless of their circumstances. In times of labeling so many things “un-American,” this is truly one that deserves the label.

Well, James, are you saying that we should just let criminals free to run the streets?!

This is an argument (or something similar) most anyone who has worked substantively for criminal justice reform hears consistently. And the answer is simple – no.

Our criminal justice system – at least in theory – is intended to not only punish people but also rehabilitate individuals and encourage them not to re-offend. In that mission, inherently every individual who is charged with a crime must be considered individually based upon the charge he or she is facing, the circumstances surrounding their case, their criminal record, and a whole host of other factors to craft the best “plan” of punishment and rehabilitation. After all, for example, shouldn’t someone charged with assault for pushing a friend who is unharmed during an argument be treated as differently than another person who slugs a person they do not know for no provocation whatsoever? I would think so?

So too, we should be thinking of more creative ways to treat criminal records (and therefore expungements) in Virginia. It should not simply be the one-size-fits-all scheme currently in place.

So what should we do?

First of all, misdemeanors should be plain and simply be treated differently from felonies. There should be a certain period of years that misdemeanors stay on an accused’s record, after which time (assuming they comply with the Court’s requirements and have no further violations of law), the charge should be expungable.

Secondly, we should also consider certain felonies as eligible for expungement. Of course, these would include nonviolent felonies (and thereby exclude violent felonies), but I also believe that where other convictions that result from drug additional or mental health issues should be considered for expungement as well.

You’re crazy, James, this is Virginia. It’s not going to happen.

Well, one of the few other Commonwealths in our nation has proved this is an obtainable goal. In fact, just last year, Kentucky passed a massive overhaul of their expungement laws that permit expungement similar to what I mentioned above. Check out it out here: http://www.kentucky.com/news/politics-government/article54903390.html and http://courts.ky.gov/expungement/Pages/default.aspx

Questions? Comments?

Look, I know some of you reading this may think I'm wrong. I encourage the debate. But liberalizing Virginia expungement can be a great way to improve our imperfect criminal justice system. Feel free to reach out if you have more questions.


James S. Abrenio
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Focusing on criminal, traffic defense and personal injury cases
Eric, Sorry again to hear about your circumstances, and that you for the kind words. All I can say is keep creating time between your conviction and the present day where you're not getting in trouble and you're being productive. Hopefully in the years to come, there will be some relief. Just keep doing good for your family. We'll keep pushing on our end. I wish you the best of luck, James
by james s abrenio July 2, 2018 at 09:17 AM
Thanks first for the good things you’re doing. I have a misdemeanor myself in Virginia. Back in April 2014 I was convicted of embezzlement for a200$ worth of iPad. Even though I’ve paid my price for my stupidity it has ruined my life drastically. I have three kids that I’m taking care of and I need to make more money but nobody want to hire me nor apartments even wonna hear my side of the story. But I’m still hopeful with people like you our pains and wounds would be cured. Expungement should be practiced in Virginia no doubt
by Eric July 1, 2018 at 03:45 PM
I appreciate your timely article. I have a family member who at 18 was caught shoplifting, given the first offender program in Virginia, and the courts dismissed the charges after he complied, but he cannot get this charge expunged. He was a young, stupid kid, but now has a Master's Degree, has never gotten in trouble before or after that issue, and is having a very difficult time finding a job. I don't think it's fair that he has to be tainted with this mistake for the rest of his life. Other states allow for expungements after completing community service, but Virginia wants to oppress people. Why?
by Annie May 14, 2018 at 10:48 AM
You're welcome James! It was hard enough getting voting and civil rights restored. Perhaps the answer lies there. More people voting now that the process is a little easier in Virginia. The system is flawed across the board but Virginia is probably the worst and most punitive state. It is laughable at the early stages after a conviction that probation requires employment as a condition but there are all these barriers of obtaining employment. Even with a college degree! It is utterly hypocritical of Republicans, the party largely responsible for obstructing reform to constantly moan about able bodied men and women not working and contributing to society but they have created a system that blocks people with criminal records from moving on(vast majority of them being minorities). It is utterly hypocritical of them to stand for religious freedom or faith but they cannot forgive as that is a tenet of virtually all faiths including Christianity. Yeah I will begin to write to my representatives. Though I believe reform will be slow to come to Virginia. It is nearly impossible to get even charges that were nolle prossed expunged let alone a conviction. Perhaps Northern Virginia should break away from the rest of the State. I see some positive changes here. I used to trust police officers and believe the system was fair and just but that seems dependent on the color of your skin. I've had friends call for an accident of exchange form to the ffx county nonemergency police line and end up with tickets for failure to pay full time and attention. Both parties in the accident were shocked and perhaps could have just exchanged the information on a peace of paper. The judge convicted the friend who called. He called the cops for help and was charged. Fined $50 and $67 in court fees. A friend of mine who is an advocate sent me this book: http://newjimcrow.com Great read and explains a lot. The criminal justice system across the board serves as a form of social control. Virginia is certainly the worst in the Country. I hope more attorneys speak out against this as you are!😃
by Adam August 11, 2017 at 07:57 AM
Thank you both for your thoughtful replies. Obviously, I'm on your side! And the way to change the law is one phone call/letter/meeting at a time. I urge everyone to be very active with their state representatives. And do it now! If you're not sure who represents you, here's a handy website! (http://whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov/). I urge you to join us to push for change! And if you do send a letter, send me a copy! Here's my email - [email protected]
by james abrenio August 10, 2017 at 02:09 PM
Thank you very much for this article. It just makes it harder to move on Virginia even over simple things. I never understood the need perpetually carry this label of a criminal for life over something one did in college or a poor choice that resulted in a conviction. It is akin to being a leper and you do not understand how immensely hurtful it is on a daily basis knowing that you were punished long ago but you are still left in invisible shackles that block you at every corner. This does not matter how much education you have attained, how much you have turned your life around, how many years have passed. In Virginia you are labeled for life and it is so limiting and discouraging knowing that you are most likely qualified for that job or maybe you would make an excellent licensed professional in a field but your conviction is bar. Often it is the only thing considered. There has to be change in Virginia.
by Adam August 9, 2017 at 06:36 PM
I agree with you 110%. Is there anything I can do as a private citizen to work with people to seek changes in expungement laws in Virginia?
by Jeanne March 22, 2017 at 08:23 PM
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