CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Those who support a Second Chance for Employment Act in the state Legislature believe momentum is on their side.

The bill, which would expand eligibility for people convicted of some nonviolent crimes to have their records expunged, on Wednesday passed its first hurdle — the Senate’s Economic Development Committee. It now goes to the full Senate, with a possible second reference to the Judiciary Committee.

Today those in support of the bill had what amounted to a celebration and a rally to keep pushing forward.

Lida Shepherd

“I think it is critical to getting people back to work,” said Lida Shepherd of the American Friends Service Committee. “We have an unemployment problem in this state We have a lot of felons in this state.

“We have more felons now than we have ever had. It’s an issue of how can someone really get back on the right track if they are denied employment.”

Those who are in support of the bill gathered in the Governor’s Conference Room off the Secretary of State’s Office today to share stories and express their support for the bill.

Many of those who told their stories have served time for crimes related to drugs and are now having trouble finding work.

Darrell Padget

One of those was McDowell County resident Darrell Padgett, who served 20 years in prison on a charge related to selling crack. His original sentence was 37-and-a-half years.

During his time in prison, he changed his behavior and began to study criminal law. He earned an associate degree in paralegal studies and put his new skills to work to persuade a federal judge to reduce his sentence.

Padgett was released in 2012, enrolled in college and earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration. By 2015, he had earned his masters degree in criminal justice, summa cum laude.

His efforts earned him the attention of the White House, and he received a letter of admiration signed by then-President Barack Obama.

Speaking today on “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval, Padget said that despite his turnaround he is still having trouble finding steady employment.

“Society is reluctant to let people re-enter society that have come out of the criminal justice system,” Padgett said.

“Despite the fact have a masters degree I am unable to find employment. I can’t get employment. The first thing they want to know is, ‘Have you been convicted of a felony?'”

Padgett concluded, “I have to say yes.”

Those who support the bill believe their biggest hurdle will be in the House of Delegates.

Last year, the state Senate approved the bill unanimously. But it stalled out in the House, where it was assigned to the House Industry and Labor Committee and never emerged. 

The effort’s biggest supporter in the House, Delegate Mike Pushkin, spoke at today’s gathering and said the Senate bill has potential for passage.

“That’s the bill we need to get behind,” said Pushkin, D-Kanawha. “Let’s get it sent straight to Judiciary.”

Pushkin this year introduced two versions of the measure, House Bill 2532 and House Bill 2107, that again have gone nowhere. Both were again assigned to the House’s Industry and Labor Committee in February but haven’t been taken up.

One version of Pushkin’s bill has a few Republican co-sponsors, Charlotte Lane, Pat McGeehan and Guy Ward.

Another Republican delegate, Jill Upson, is sponsoring a bill that takes up a particular aspect of the Second Chance for Employment Act.

Upson, R-Jefferson, was one of the speakers at Thursday’s event. Her bill is called the “Ban the Box Act.” That bill, like Pushkin’s, was assigned to the House Industry and Labor Committee in February with no action taken so far.

“It takes the question off the job application that says ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ so that you’re considering someone’s job qualifications before you get into someone’s background,” Upson said today.

“It just gives people an opportunity to make their case in front of an employer. No guarantees that you’re going to be hired, but it does give you an opportunity to sit there and say ‘OK, it was 5 years ago or 10 years ago’ and explain.”

Upson believes the “Ban the Box Act” still has a chance to emerge from committee and generate some momentum of its own.

“People do have questions, especially those who employ people,” Upson said today in an interview after the Second Chance event. “If they are hiring a contractor who is going to go into someone’s home, they want to know what that person’s background is for liability reasons.

“I understand there are some questions and a few objections to the legislation so that’s what I’m doing behind the scenes is to offer amendments and make the bill better so that they could support it.”

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