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House passes bill automatically sealing many criminal records 8 years after sentence completed

RICHMOND — The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill Wednesday that would automatically seal criminal records for more than 150 offenses, making it one of the boldest automated sealing proposals in the country.

“This is a second chances bill,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, the sponsor of House Bill 5146. “This is a bill of redemption.”

The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House on a nearly party-line vote of 59-37 and one abstention.

Four Republicans, including Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth, joined Democrats in voting for the bill.

The measure moves to the Senate, which has shown bipartisan support over the years for expunging criminal records, although in more limited terms.

“Now is our chance to endorse second chances for so many Virginians,” said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke.

Under the bill, anyone convicted of any of roughly 170 misdemeanor and felony offenses — with most violent offenses excluded — could have their records automatically sealed if they aren’t convicted of any new criminal offenses eight years following the completion of a sentence.

People who commit violent offenses and sex offenses can’t have their records sealed. Criminal charges that don’t result in convictions would be automatically sealed, although there are a few conditions in which they could remain in the public record.

The records are only available for review in limited circumstances, such as law enforcement conducting background checks for firearm purchases or background checks for police officers and judges.

People with sealed records would not have to disclose their criminal histories, although there are situations — such as if someone were applying for a job that required security clearance — in which that person would have to inform a potential employer about past convictions.

If signed into law, the measure wouldn’t go into effect for four years.

Virginia has one of the most limited record sealing systems in the country. It is one of only nine states that don’t allow record sealing of misdemeanor convictions. And 36 states allow records to be sealed for some felony convictions.

About 1.6 million Virginians have a criminal record. Currently in Virginia, people can petition to have their records sealed if they were not convicted.

Typically, the person has to hire an attorney, file a petition in the court where the charge was filed, pay a filing fee and a judge would have to grant it. Defense attorneys say it’s a tedious and costly process, so it’s uncommon. Virginia issues about 4,000 expungement orders each year.

Automatic sealing systems mean the person doesn’t have to take any action, or spend money, and it expands access to the service.

“Criminal records, even dismissed cases, but especially convictions, keep people from thriving by preventing access to employment, housing, education, public benefits and other basic necessities,” said Rob Poggenklass, an attorney at Legal Aid Justice Center.

The bill’s fate is uncertain in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority. Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, has voiced concerns about Virginia making the leap to doing automatic expungements for felonies when no other state is doing that.

He also took issue with some of the crimes eligible for automatic expungement. As a defense attorney, he said, it’s sometimes the case that offenses like indecent exposure or domestic offenses are reduced to misdemeanor disorderly conduct, which is a charge that would be automatically sealed. He described this as “legal fiction.”

He said it was valuable to have more discussion about the list of charges that should be automatically sealed which sometimes don’t reflect the true nature of the crime.

When the legislation worked its way through the House, Democratic delegates had a few offenses, like involuntary manslaughter, removed from automatic expungement consideration.

Surovell is also worried about making this change without dealing with companies that offer private databases. Those databases scrape court information from websites, so they would be gathering information that could eventually be sealed and sell it to people interested in finding an alternative way to look up criminal records.

Herring has made this proposal a top priority this special session, which has a heavy focus on criminal justice reform following high-profile deaths of Black Americans by police.

During the regular legislative session in the spring, Del. Herring, as chairwoman of the Courts of Justice Committee, sent all of the expungement bills to the Virginia State Crime Commission to be studied.

Herring said she faced a lot of criticism for the move, because criminal justice reform advocates expected the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to pass those bills easily. Herring said she didn’t want the legislators picking and choosing a few offenses like marijuana or underage alcohol possession that are eligible for expungements.

She said that would bake more inequities into the criminal justice system.

“This is an opportunity for us to look at expungement in holistic manner in a way that protects both public safety but is true to the idea of rehabilitation and second chances,” Herring said.

The crime commission, a bipartisan advisory body that studies criminal justice issues and makes recommendations to the General Assembly, looked at various states that have record sealing systems in place.

The crime commission is also studying the petition-based expungement system and whether that can be expanded.

Last year, Pennsylvania, which has a Republican-controlled legislature, became the first state to put into effect an expansive system to automatically seal the records for charges that did not result in convictions, as well as summary offenses and low-level misdemeanors committed by people who have not incurred any other charges within 10 years.

California and Utah have adopted automatic expungement processes for convictions and are working to make those systems operative .

Some other states have narrower automatic expungement programs. For example, as part of the legalization of retail marijuana sales in Illinois, state law provides for wiping out low-level convictions and arrests for marijuana possession.

Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania, the only Republican legislator on the crime commission, called the proposal a dramatic shift in policy and repeatedly emphasized it being described as “progressive.”

“We are moving from a victim-centric approach that wants to make sure victims are made whole and public safety is protected to a different goal here,” Adams said.

Herring acknowledged the shift and encouraged her colleagues to be bold.

“If someone has committed a crime and paid their debt to society by doing time in prison or being on a period of probation, it is very important that after a specified period of time — and in this bill we have eight years — that they have the ability to have a clean record,” she said. “Imagine the stigma that comes with having something on your record. Every time you apply for a job to feed your family, your heart pounds wondering if that’s the reason you’re denied a job.”

Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone, who sits on the crime commission, said he didn’t have public safety concerns over the proposal. He said he’d been arrested a few times as a young man, and he appreciates the importance of having second chances.

“In the African American community, second chances are mandatory, they’re necessary,” said Boone, who is Black. “I stand here today as a benefactor of those second chances, or those third chances.”

US withdrawing thousands of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — The United States will pull thousands of troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan by November, the top American commander for the Middle East said Wednesday, as President Donald Trump tries to make good on his campaign promise to get America out of “endless wars.”

During a visit to Iraq, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said the reduction in Iraq — from about 5,200 troops to about 3,000 — reflects the Trump administration’s confidence in the ability of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces to handle the militant threat from the Islamic State group.

Later, McKenzie said troop levels in Afghanistan would drop to 4,500 by November. He made the statement in a telephone call with a small group of reporters, according to officials at his Central Command office.

“We’re on a glide slope to be at 4,500 by the November time frame — October, late October, November time frame,” he said, according to a transcript made available by his office. He said the path to 4,500 would be determined in part by the military’s ability to get equipment out of the country.

The U.S. presidential election is Nov. 3.

“At 4,500 we’re still going to be able to accomplish the core tasks that we want to accomplish,” he said. “And we’ve shown more than ample goodwill and our willingness to demonstrate that we don’t want to be an occupying force in this country. But we do have strategic interests, vital interests, that compel us to be certain that these entities, such as al-Qaida and ISIS, can’t be guests there to attack the United States.”

The U.S. had reduced its presence in Afghanistan to 8,600 in June and was known to plan further reductions, although McKenzie had not previously cited a projected number. He gave no exact date for reaching the 4,500 level; he said a specific date has been targeted but he would not reveal it.

The moves come as Trump faces criticism for allegedly denigrating American war dead as “losers” and “suckers.” He has denied the allegation, first reported by The Atlantic magazine last week, which surfaced at a time of heightened tension in his relationship with the military. Trump added to the perception of a growing split with Pentagon leaders when he said on Monday that they want to fight wars to boost the profits of defense companies.

Trump has been trying to make the case that he has fulfilled the promises he made four years ago as he campaigns for a second term.

U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001 when they invaded in response to the 9/11 attacks planned by al-Qaida, the militant group that enjoy refuge while the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. The U.S.-led invasion quickly toppled the Taliban from power, but the ensuing conflict dragged on far longer than expected.

U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003 and left in 2011 but returned in 2014 after the Islamic State group overran large parts of Iraq.

In June, McKenzie announced that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan had dropped to 8,600, the level that the U.S. agreed to in a February peace with the Taliban that also calls on the U.S. to withdraw entirely by next spring.

McKenzie said in recent weeks that he had doubts about a full withdrawal because of questions about the Taliban’s continued relationship with al-Qaida and high levels of violence in Afghanistan. On Wednesday he spoke confidently, however, about conditions in Iraq and the outlook for stability there.

“In recognition of the great progress the Iraqi forces have made and in consultation and coordination with the government of Iraq and our coalition partners, the United States has decided to reduce our troop presence in Iraq from about 5,200 to 3,000 troops during the month of September,” McKenzie said during his Iraq visit, according to an excerpt of his remarks provided by his office.

McKenzie said the remaining U.S. troops would continue advising and assisting Iraqi security forces as they attempt to root out remnants of the Islamic State group, sometimes called ISIS.

“The U.S. decision is a clear demonstration of our continued commitment to the ultimate goal, which is an Iraqi security force that is capable of preventing an ISIS resurgence and of securing Iraq’s sovereignty without external assistance,” McKenzie said. “The journey has been difficult, the sacrifice has been great, but the progress has been significant.”

Although Trump has talked of withdrawing completely from Iraq, Pentagon officials have cautioned that a U.S. troop presence remains necessary to guard against an IS resurgence and to help the Iraqi government limit the political and military influence of Iran, which supports militias operating inside Iraq.

Trump aides have faulted the Obama administration for having pulled out of Iraq too soon in 2011 but say the time is now right.

“This is a president, when he says I’m going to end endless wars, it’s not a slogan like it’s been for Democrats and past presidents,” Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday on Fox News.

Tensions spiked between the U.S. and Iraq in January after a U.S. drone strike near the Baghdad airport killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Angry Iraqi lawmakers, spurred on by Shiite political factions, passed a nonbinding resolution to oust all U.S.-led coalition forces from the country.

In response to the Soleimani killing, Iran on Jan. 8 launched a ballistic missile attack on al-Asad air base in Iraq, which resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops. Two months later, U.S. fighter jets struck five sites in retaliation, targeting Iranian-backed Shiite militia members believed responsible for the January rocket attack.

Roanoke Valley coalition offers blueprint to attack addictions

A Roanoke Valley coalition on Wednesday offered a detailed guide to tackle opioid and other addictions.

The Roanoke Valley Collective Response’s Blueprint to Action is a two-year effort by hundreds of people who joined together to influence policies and programs so that they could better reach individuals and families affected by addictions and work on the underlying problems that lead to substance use.

The collective includes people from health care, law enforcement, emergency medical services, local and state government, education, businesses, the faith community and a wide range of organizations. The collective has brought 280 individuals and 130 organizations in the Roanoke Valley together to focus on finding solutions.

“I remember having a lot of conversations before the collective began about all of the good work that so many disparate organizations were engaged in and doing to try to address the opioid epidemic. And everyone was feeling as though just doing their small part wasn’t going to make a dent,” said U.S. Magistrate Robert Ballou, a member of the collective steering committee.

The committee held a Zoom meeting Wednesday morning to announce the plan.

“This is a community-based problem. The ravages of addiction have an impact on families. It has an impact on businesses, and obviously on individuals,” he said. “But it also becomes justice-involved and has an impact on our courts. If we can reduce all those impacts, we are going to make our community much more whole and much more wholesome.”

When the collective formed in September 2018, it had 60 members, each with some piece of the opioid epidemic who were looking to join forces. The Hope Initiative, a volunteer effort to connect people with addictions to services, was sprouting from its nascent origin of limited hours at the Bradley Free Clinic.

Janine Underwood, director of the free clinic and co-chair of the collective’s steering committee, said the collective continues to grow with new partners, and its work has continued throughout the pandemic to address addictions that are worsening under the stress and isolation of the last six months.

Kimberly Horn, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and co-chair of the steering committee, walked through the blueprint and its five key components: prevention, treatment, crisis response, recovery and child and family support. Under each category, several priorities are listed that localities throughout the valley could prioritize to best meet their needs, she said.

For example, priorities under the recovery category range from increasing sober housing and wrap-around services, to showing employers how recovery can benefit the business and the employee, to talking with insurers about increasing coverage for recovery services.

“We wanted research and evaluation wrapped around all that we do,” she said, noting that being able to sort through data was important for each category’s working group.

To aid with data collection, the group benefited from a pilot project through Virginia’s Framework for Addiction Analysis and Community Transformation. Horn said it allows all the organizations to share information and overdose mapping and find “real-time answers to some of our problems,” she said.

The blueprint will be used to guide a response to addiction issues in the Roanoke Valley, as the group continues to look for gaps in services.

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the collective’s work.

“With COVID there’s been the skyrocket of overdoses, fatal and not, that we hear about day in and day out,” said Christine Baldwin, project director and certified peer recovery specialist with Roanoke Valley HOPE Initiative. “We are seeing a large relapse of those in recovery because their support systems and pathways to recovery are being altered or completely ceased due to COVID.”

She said the blueprint will need to evolve along with changes in the community.

“From the get-go, I stressed this is an addiction epidemic, not just opioids. Those substances are going to shift and change and rise and fall if we are not really treating the disease of addiction and the underlying cause of trauma that are driving that addiction,” Baldwin said. “We’ve going to just trade one substance for another.”

Members of the collective said the initiative has led to agencies partnering with each other, which opened up more treatment and recovery options.

It has led to programs to distribute naloxone in more places so it can be used to reverse overdoses.

The group has helped change attitudes so that more people understand addictions as brain disorders rather than character flaws.

The effort has also led to grants that help women train for and find jobs, and help families and children affected by addiction.

The group has identified gaps in services and helped plug them by connecting people caught up in the justice system with programs that keep them out of jail.

“We need everyone involved in this. It touches every area of the valley,” said Nancy Hans, executive director of Prevention Council of Roanoke County.