Trey Kay, Samantha Gattsek Published

Us & Them: Expungement — Between Hope and Danger


It’s estimated that more than a quarter of the adults in West Virginia have a criminal record. That includes cases with one arrest or more, but no conviction or jail time. Those records can still show up years later in a background check and make someone ineligible for a job or a place to live. 

On this Us & Them, host Trey Kay looks at the road toward a second chance. Nearly every state now has some sort of process to seal or expunge a record depending on the severity and type of crime, for people who want to take steps toward their future. 

In this episode, we look at the process which can be complicated and time consuming. Some say it has given them hope — while others suggest there are dangers in shielding potential employers from the truth about people they might hire.   

This episode of Us & Them is presented with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council and the CRC Foundation.

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A photograph of an adult woman with dark brown hair. The photo is just of her face. She smiles for the camera and wears a gray cardigan and yellow shirt.
Marie Bechtel is a lawyer with Legal Aid West Virginia. She focuses most of her practice on helping clients expunge convictions and other unlawful activity from their criminal record. Her work is funded through West Virginia’s Jobs and Hope program, which was created to help people who are re-entering from the criminal justice system and are looking to overcome barriers to employment. Expungement cases are only a small part of what Legal Aid does. Since 2018, they have taken on approximately 1,200 expungement cases.

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An adult woman, dressed in judge robes, sits at a judge's podium. She waves her hands to her right, as if in the middle of a phrase. A sign on the desk reads, "Judge Carrie Webster."
Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Carrie Webster says the number of expungement cases that come before her court is on the rise. Webster says prosecutors determine a person’s eligibility and she reviews their record.

“The nature of the offense, the person’s entire criminal history, and the passage of time between — time that they were charged with the offense or seeking expungement — whether it was an arrest that resulted in a dismissal or a conviction. And then I look at what they are doing now and if I can establish that, you know, whether it be through letters or some form of employment and the reason for it, a lot of times it’s for employment. Sometimes it’s because, you know, ‘I’m ashamed. I was 24 years old and I got off on the wrong side of the track, and I ended up being with the wrong crowd, and I got a drug conviction. Now I’m, 45 years old, I’ve got two children, and I hate to tell them that their dad’s a convicted felon. And I’ve worked for the last 15 years with the union, I haven’t touched drugs in 10 years, I’ve got steady employment…’ Those are the kinds of cases where I may expunge a felony. And I’ve expunged just a couple felony convictions where the majority unbelievably are sometimes arrested, even when there’s not been a conviction, they just want the arrest expunged.” — Honorable Judge Carrie Webster

Credit: Charleston Gazette-Mail
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Amber Blankenship hoped to expunge her criminal record. However, West Virginia law says Blankenship could only expunge one of her two felonies, since they occurred at different times. Legal Aid did not take her case because she would still have a felony on her record. Blankenship says obtaining an expungement is more than just getting a “clean slate.” She says despite working hard to turn her life around, the record of her past holds her back.

“I believe that every human is redeemable, including myself. And it’s really hard to come back from that, because you are facing consequences every day, for something that you’ve made great changes to turn your life around. But, you know, those collateral consequences, they still exist, and they are still preventing West Virginians from going back to work after they’ve faced consequences for their actions.” — Amber Blankenship

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A middle age man with gray hair, dressed in a suit and tie wearing glasses, sits at his desk with his hands on top of each other.
Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, chairs the Committee on Finance for the State Senate in West Virginia. Us & Them host Trey Kay spoke with Sen. Tarr back in 2019 about the “Second Chance” laws that legislators passed then. Tarr was one of the lone members against that legislation and Kay wanted to know if the senator’s position had changed.

“My position has not changed. I think that any time that an employer is evaluating an employee to whether or not they’re a fit for their organization, that they should have the right to ask any question they want and be able to pursue that answer.” — West Virginia Sen. Eric Tarr

Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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Troy Young successfully worked with Legal Aid to expunge his criminal record after a 2013 felony drug conviction. Young spent no time in jail, but his arrest and conviction had serious consequences.

“You can’t judge somebody by their past. God is the only one out here that can judge somebody like that. Like, people learn from their mistakes. There’s people I hear that don’t learn from their mistakes and they keep repeating it over and they keep relapsing… But if they’re still in treatment, at least they’re in there. They’re trying to do better. They really are trying. Give them the benefit of the doubt and let them try.” — Troy Young

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