Matt Powers
Matt Powers · March 27, 2024

ARLINGTON, Va.—Melissa Brown made some mistakes during her years struggling with addiction in her teens and twenties. After a conviction for robbery in 2002, she turned her life around and became a state certified counselor to help others suffering from addiction. But in 2018, Melissa found out she’s banned from working with patients under Virginia law. Melissa still wants to help others overcome addiction. Her firsthand experience makes her particularly well-suited to guide others through recovery. That is why today, Melissa is partnering with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a lawsuit challenging this permanent-punishment law preventing her from working in substance abuse counseling.

“The justice system makes sure that we pay for our choices, even if those choices stemmed from addiction or a mental health crisis,” said Melissa. “But once we serve our time and pay our debts, we should be able to come back to society and help people who are suffering in those shoes today. But Virginia’s law says that people can’t rehabilitate.”

Melissa Brown made mistakes when she was younger and in the throes of addiction. Those mistakes came to a head in 2001, when she stole a purse to fund her drug habit. After that experience, Melissa stopped using drugs and turned her life around. After being released from prison, 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, she learned that, under Virginia law, she was banned from working as a counselor due to her decades-old conviction. Melissa now works at a different rehab center as head of marketing and operations, but she would love to get back to working directly with patients. She would probably supervise other counselors. Unfortunately, the law prevents Melissa from doing so because of her own experiences as an addict.

People like Melissa who have overcome addiction are often the best suited to help others overcome addiction. But Virginia permanently punishes them because of their old lives. State law bans people with convictions for any of 176 “barrier crimes” from being employed in a “direct care” position, which includes both substance abuse counselors and their direct supervisors. Generally, the ban applies no matter how old the conviction, how unrelated it is to substance abuse counseling, or how little it reflects the person’s fitness today. The agency enforcing this barrier admits that this ban keeps out applicants with “invaluable” experience.

“Banning Melissa from working doesn’t protect the public, it just deprives people battling addiction of a qualified counselor,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward. “The constitution guarantees the right to earn an honest living, and we’re looking forward to the court saying so.”