Several Civil Survival members were among the many people who recently testified before legislators in Olympia in support of the New Hope Act, House Bill 2890. The bill seeks to streamline the process of vacating convictions for formerly justice-involved individuals who have completed their sentences and want the chance to lead productive personal and professional lives without the ongoing barriers attached to a criminal record.
Tarra Simmons, Civil Survival Executive Director, is also Co-Chair of the Statewide Reentry Council. Tarra testified about barriers she continues to face despite graduating at the top of her law school class and receiving many awards and distinctions. She then explained how the New Hope Act would help people who are trying to reintegrate and become productive members of their communities.
Under current Washington law, when a felony sentence is complete, the person is issued a certificate of discharge, which goes to a judge for approval. In some cases, the system fails and the certificate is not sent. Bill 2890 would allow a person to apply to a court for the certificate of discharge by providing proof that all sentencing conditions are complete. The bill also changes current law to allow vacation of more than one misdemeanor over a person’s lifetime, in keeping with the rule that multiple felonies may be vacated.
Tarra Simmons, Chris Poulos, Omari Amili, Chris Beasley and Noel Vest all testified eloquently about the final portion of the bill that would modify the rules governing vacating convictions. Under current law, statutory waiting periods for vacation do not begin to run until after a person pays all of his or her legal financial obligations (LFO’s). LFO’s often run to thousands of dollars and can take many years to pay. This can significantly increase waiting periods beyond statutory limits for those who cannot afford to pay their LFO’s immediately upon release. Bill 2890 would start the waiting period at the completion of custody. The bill also increases the types of offenses eligible for vacation. LFO’s would still need to be satisfied before applying for a vacation order. Tarra explained that rehabilitation and restoration need to be part of the criminal justice system.
Chris Poulos, Statewide Reentry Executive Director and Civil Survival Co-Chair, testified that through collateral consequences people can get a life sentence by default in many areas. He said the bigger picture is that we are creating an underclass based on one or more bad life decisions a person may have made decades earlier. Chris was granted federal security clearance when he served at President Obama’s National Drug Policy Institute in Washington D.C. but could not find housing because he had to check the box admitting to his felony conviction. Chris explained that permitting someone to vacate a conviction through hard work and proof of reform provides relief for the rest of the person’s life by finally allowing them to check “no.”
Omari Amili, Chris Beasley and Noel Vest echoed Poulos’ remarks and described their journeys from incarceration to higher education and community service. They testified about the ongoing barriers created by criminal background checks in their personal and professional lives. They stressed that transformation is possible, but successful reentry depends upon giving people hope and opportunities to serve their communities and society without the needless roadblocks of a lifelong sentence.
See the video of the full hearing on tvw.org.