RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A former drug user turned substance abuse counselor is suing to strike down a state law that he says is preventing people like him from being hired, even as more treatment services are desperately needed.

There are 176 barrier crimes on the books in Virginia that disqualify individuals from employment in licensed adult and child behavioral health and developmental services programs. Many of those crimes would not typically appear on a background check.

With reform slow to come in the General Assembly, Rudy Carey is taking his story to federal court.

Carey turned his life around after childhood trauma led him to abuse drugs and alcohol for two decades. Now, he wants to use his experience overcoming addiction to help others.

However, Carey was forced to walk away from his job of five years after learning a seventeen-year-old conviction for assaulting a police officer bans him from working as a substance abuse counselor in Virginia.

“I love to help people. There is nothing more priceless to me than to see people in my community and they constantly say ‘thank you for what you’ve done in my life and when are you coming back’ and I can only say I don’t know,” Carey said at a press conference on Wednesday through tears.

“I did commit crimes, yes I did. But I’ve also changed my life and I’m not that person anymore,” he furthered.

CREDIT: Institute for Justice

The lawsuit filed against the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) on Tuesday aims to overturn barrier crime laws that permanently block the hiring of counselors like Carey.

“Those are things like robbery. They’re also things like recklessly driving a boat or misusing a laser pointer,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Andrew Ward.

DBHDS declined to comment on the pending litigation per department policy, according to Communications Director Lauren Cunningham.

Ward said the U.S. Constitution protects the right to earn an honest living and laws that stop people from working need to be rational.

“Judging Rudy and people like him for who they were 17 years ago instead of who they are today, that’s just not rational,” Ward said. “The government shouldn’t stop people from working because of irrelevant criminal histories.”

The legal challenge comes as a General Assembly commission is studying barrier crime reform more broadly. Their next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 6.

Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) said they are looking at reducing the number of convictions considered barrier crimes, limiting the time frame for hiring restrictions and creating a broader pathway for people to appeal decisions.

“I hope they win the case,” Edwards said.

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said a newly passed expungement bill makes sealed charges exempt from barrier crime laws. However, he said it doesn’t take effect until 2025 and it only applies to Class 5 and 6 felonies, as well as misdemeanors.

During a recent presentation to the panel of lawmakers, DBHDS Chief Human Resources Officer Stacy Pendleton cited agency data showing that at least 1,100 people have been deemed ineligible for employment as a result of barrier crime laws since 2018.

SOURCE: Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services

“Many are qualified applicants who can provide valuable services,” one presentation slide said. “Additionally, many have lived experience, or first-hand experience with mental health or substance use challenges, which can be an invaluable in the provision of services and essential to the growth of peer services.”

Pendleton furthered that the conversation around barrier crimes comes as recruiting qualified applicants to help meet growing workforce needs remains a challenge.

“I mean this from my heart. If this doesn’t help me–if the legislation doesn’t change for me–I hope it changes for the people behind me,” Carey said.