Across the country, there are tens of thousands of laws that ban people from working because of their criminal histories. Sometimes precise, narrow laws are justified. But, more often, these laws amount to permanent punishments that block people from supporting themselves because of old, irrelevant convictions. IJ’s defense of economic liberty has led us to challenge egregious examples of these laws in Pennsylvania and California. Our latest case on behalf of a client seeking a fresh start takes us to Virginia.
Rudy Carey is everything you could want in a substance abuse counselor. He did the job for five years. His patients loved him. He even won a counselor of the year award. The reason he’s so good? He’s been there himself.
Decades ago, Rudy struggled with drugs and alcohol and even spent time in prison. But thanks to a great rehab program, he overcame his addiction in 2007, stayed sober, and turned his life around. After working his way up in fast food and going back to school, Rudy found a calling in counseling, giving to others the same kind of help that had so helped him.
But in 2018, Rudy’s dream job—and all the good it did in his Fredericksburg, Virginia, community—ended after five years because of something called a “barrier crime” law. In Virginia, there are 176 separate barrier crimes for substance abuse counselors, and conviction for any one of them generally means a lifetime ban. In Rudy’s case, 14 years earlier, in his old life, he’d struck a police officer while trying to run away during a traffic stop. Rudy’s employer knew about his conviction and, misunderstanding the law, hired him to work anyway. But then a decree came down from the state: Because of that single 2004 conviction, Rudy had to go.
Today, rather than use his hard-won expertise to help others as a counselor, Rudy spends long weeks away from his family as a trucker. And he’s not the only person affected by the barrier crime law. In just the past three years, it has stopped more than 1,000 Virginians from working as substance abuse counselors or in other professions. The state itself admits this doesn’t make sense. Drug abuse in Virginia is a serious health problem. Blocking people with “invaluable” experience—that’s the state’s word—worsens the shortage of qualified counselors.
That’s why Rudy joined IJ to challenge Virginia’s ban in federal court. Laws blocking people from working must at least be rational. And preventing a highly qualified counselor from doing much-needed work because of a single irrelevant mistake more than a decade ago? That’s not rational. If anything, laws like this are counterproductive. By preventing people from getting back on their feet and supporting themselves, these permanent punishments lead to more unemployment, more state assistance, and, ultimately, more crime.
Until that changes, IJ will keep suing. People with criminal records who have done their time should be able to find their way back to being free, responsible, and self-sufficient. People like Rudy have earned a second chance at making an honest living. And IJ will keep fighting until they get it.
Andrew Ward is an IJ attorney.