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A State Law Keeping Some People Out of Jobs Due to Past Convictions to be Challenged in Federal Court

A new federal lawsuit is challenging part of Virginia code that prevents people from holding certain jobs because of old criminal convictions.

Back in the 1990’s, Virginia approved a bunch of get-tough-on-crime laws. One of them is now preventing Rudy Carey from having his dream job as a substance-abuse counselor. That's because he has a conviction from 2004, a time when he was struggling with substance abuse. Now he's turned his life around and he wants to help other people do the same thing.

"I love to help people. There's nothing more priceless to me than to see people in my community, and they constantly say, ‘thank you for what you've done in my life and when are you coming back?' I can only say, 'I don't know,'" explains Carey. "So I had to change my career."

Andrew Ward is a lawyer with the Institute for Justice who’s challenging the state law as unconstitutional in federal court. He says these laws prevent people from holding jobs regardless of how long ago the crime happened, what kind of offense it was or whether they're fit to hold the job today.

“People change," Ward says. "No one should be denied the right to work because of irrelevant criminal convictions. They should be assessed for whether they're fit for the job now."

According to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, in the last three years more than 1,100 people have been ineligible for jobs based on old convictions. State officials also point out a shortage of counselors, adding that the law is preventing people with valuable experience from helping others.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.