Should people with criminal records be counselors? Ban gets challenge

By Bob Unruh

A federal judge is allowing a challenge to a state ban on counselors with criminal records to move forward.

The Institute for Justice is working with Melissa Brown on her case over a practice in the state of Virginia that bans her from working with patients battling addiction.

The court ruling found that Brown “has put forward sufficiently compelling arguments to make out a plausible claim that the Virginia barrier law, as applied to her, may be irrational.”

That “barrier law” lists dozens and dozens of offenses, and bans those convicted from being employed in many counseling posts.

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“This is a law that, according to the state itself, keeps out ‘qualified’ people with ‘invaluable experience,'” IJ attorney Andrew Ward explained in the organization’s report. “We’re delighted with yesterday’s ruling, and we’re excited to have the chance to prove that the barrier crime law is as irrational as it seems.”

The IJ noted Brown “made mistakes” when she was young.

Addicted herself, in 2001 she stole a purse to fund her drug habit. Convicted of robbery, she stopped using drugs and after release, she earned a bachelor’s in psychology and began working as a substance-abuse counselor to help people struggling with heroin.

“In 2018, she was even promoted to lead counselor. But, after new management took over the rehab center where she worked, she learned that, under Virginia law, she was banned from working as a counselor due to her decades-old conviction,” the IJ said.

She now works at another center, in marketing and operations, but is seeking to return to work that directly helps patients.

The state law prevents that, and that’s the basis for her challenge.

The state’s request that the case be dismissed recently was rejected by Judge Leonia Brinkema, who formally noted that since her offense in 2002, she has not been charged with, or convicted of, any other crimes.

The now-grandmother started college while behind bars and after her release, was married, reunited with her children, finished her degree, performed 2,000 hours of substance-abuse counseling, got a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor credential and more.

Her current employer has noted that it would make her a supervisor of counselors if it could.

The state, meanwhile, has expressed that there is a growing need for substance abuse counselors.

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