Virginia requires an innocent person to take multiple steps to clear their record including getting fingerprinted, obtaining certified copies of their arrest report, filing a petition, paying a fee and obtaining legal service on the correction from a commonwealth’s attorney. On Friday, the Legal Aid Justice Center helped people jump those hurdles with its first-ever expungement clinic.
“The state has made expungement so much more difficult than it needs to be,” former center official Rob Poggenklass told The Daily Progress.
Standing beside a table with nine stacks of forms, Poggenklass lamented the paperwork burden as a steady influx of people defied the morning rain to enter the CitySpace meeting space in downtown Charlottesville to gain a measure of freedom.
“We’re having to go through a court process to get rid of records that shouldn’t be there in the first place,” he said.
Now directing an advocacy group called Justice Forward Virginia, Poggenklass has long eyed criminal records as barriers to life’s basics.
“Everyone needs a place to live,” Poggenklass said, “and presumably we want everyone to be working.”
Poggenklass contended that because so many employment and housing applications are prescreened by computers, old arrest records frequently disqualify innocent people.
“People are screened out before they even have a chance to meet their potential landlord or their potential employer,” said Poggenklass.
Harold Folley, the senior civil rights organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said that he frequently hears such stories.
“People call me all the time and say, ‘Hey, I had a charge 15 years ago,’” Folley told The Daily Progress. “People were saying, ‘I can’t a job because of my record.’”
One person who did get a job despite a record is Toni McCreash, who works for a state agency. Even though Virginia law means that McCreash cannot erase the two misdemeanor convictions she got for the day she left her kids in the car while she ran into a Walmart to buy fruits and vegetables, she drove drove several hours from Tidewater to attend the clinic in Charlottesville.
“I hope to observe it so I can take it back to Chesapeake,” McCreash told The Daily Progress. “I’m excited about spreading this to other areas and helping people get their records expunged.”
In 2025, a new law takes effect that will allow the sealing of many lower-level convictions, some of them automatically. It wasn’t clear to organizers whether the new law will be made retroactive, so events such as the one on Friday may become more common.
“This seems to be a really good and fair process to help people reintegrate into our community,” said Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania. “It’s an exciting process.”
Platania also addressed a possible elephant in the room: people who wriggle out of legitimate charges for one reason or another.
“There’s a process,” Platania said, that lets the commonwealth’s attorney keep legitimate but abandoned or dismissed files alive. “On very rare occasions we have done that.”
But like his Albemarle County counterpart, Jim Hingeley, these prosecutors were present at the clinic to accept legal service and thereby streamline petitions on Friday. And despite the day’s rain, a steady influx of people entered CitySpace to gain their measure of freedom.
“A process that would normally take months, we’ve cut out all that time by bringing everyone together,” said Kelly Orians, a University of Virginia professor who directs the school’s Decarceration and Community Reentry Clinic. “Everyone’s gladly here today and happy to be working together.”