Bill would expunge criminal records

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ALBANY — State lawmakers are considering legislation that would automatically seal and expunge most criminal convictions under the proposed Clean Slate Act.

The bill would include a two-step process that would first automatically seal certain traffic infractions and misdemeanors after one year and three years after a felony conviction, as long as the individual is not on probation or parole or is required to register as a sex offender. The conviction record would later be automatically expunged.

A virtual press conference was held Thursday prior to a public hearing of the state Senate’s Standing Committee on Codes to push for passage of the bill.

Millions of New Yorkers have criminal records and it can prevent them from accessing jobs, education and housing, Marvin Mayfield, statewide organizer for the Center for Community Alternatives, said Thursday.

“There are 2.3 million New Yorkers with a conviction record and 80 percent are Black and Latinx people,” Mayfield said. “Formerly incarcerated people without relief from expungement lose nearly half a million dollars in lifetime earnings, further entrenching the racial wealth gap.”

If passed, the law would expunge conviction records after individuals have completed their sentences, Mayfield said.

“Clean Slate is a moral imperative. It is an economic imperative. It is a racial-justice imperative,” he said.

Aswad Thomas, national director of the Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, said he is a victim of gun violence and is calling for passage of the act.

“As crime survivors, what we want most is what happened to us to never happen to anyone else,” Thomas said. “We understand that effective public safety means tackling the root causes of crime and eliminating barriers to civility and success. By providing opportunities for people with past convictions we see that we reduce the chances that someone will become involved with the justice system again and reduces the likelihood of further victimization.”

Legislators and district attorneys from across the state spoke about the Clean Slate Act during the state Senate’s virtual public hearing that took place Thursday.

Several state legislators spoke out in favor of the bill.

Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-20, sponsored the legislation and said millions of New Yorkers have to deal with the repercussions of having a conviction record for the rest of their lives, stunting their abilities to obtain employment and public housing.

“The beauty of this bill is that it not only stands for basic tenets of redemption and fairness and justice, but will also be a tool for public safety and economic prosperity,” Myrie said.

The impact of mass incarceration and “overpolicing” has disproportionately impacted communities of color, Myrie said, adding that some states with broadly available expungement of criminal records show lower rates of recidivism.

Cedric Fulton, a community organizer and civil-rights manager for the Hudson-Catskill Housing Coalition, supports the legislation and called the inability to expunge criminal records a form of “perpetual punishment.”

Fulton shared the story of a Troy resident who is an active volunteer in the community, but was repeatedly turned down for employment due to two misdemeanor drug convictions when she was a teenager.

“Astonishingly, after six years of being turned down for position after position, she has still decided to fight for her city’s youth and young mothers, all as a volunteer,” Fulton said. “How much longer does this hero have to suffer a life sentence due to a permanent record?”

Fulton related the story of a Hudson man with six children who has to live across the street from his family because he’s not permitted to live in public housing due to his conviction record.

“This young man hasn’t had a criminal conviction in 15 years,” Fulton said.

Several district attorneys from around the state spoke at the public hearing and said that while they support the intent of the proposed law, more clarification is needed.

Under current law, individuals are able to seal a record of one misdemeanor and one felony — with restrictions — but some individuals with multiple low-level misdemeanors are not eligible and the ability to seal and expunge records in some cases should be broadened, Albany County District Attorney David Soares said.

“Violent criminals and sex offenders are people that I don’t believe should qualify for expungement or sealing,” Soares said. “However, I do believe that we need to open the opportunity more for individuals who are denied simply because of the number of offenses they have committed. People who have experienced addiction, people who are living certain lifestyles that we can attribute to immaturity, those are individuals right now that cannot obtain the benefit of sealing and expungement, and those are the individuals that I believe clearly should be entitled to sealing and expungement.”

Putnam County District Attorney Robert Tendy said many district attorneys support the intent of the measure, but with reservations.

“The goal of making it easier to give a fresh start, a clean slate to someone who deserves it, is admirable, and will help make a former criminal a better citizen,” Tendy said.

He offered to work with legislators to make the bill something law enforcement can support as well.

“The intentions of the law are very good, but the law is very general and it does not take into account many important exceptions that need to be addressed or at least discussed in order to safeguard our citizens, particularly our most vulnerable citizens,” Tendy said.

Among the issues that need to be addressed are the ability to protect seniors when hiring employees who may have committed theft, fraud or other crimes, or nursing homes, schools and other facilities that hire drivers and want to ensure they don’t have risky or repeated traffic violations such as driving while intoxicated.

Senate Republicans spoke out against the proposed legislation Thursday, calling it a threat to public safety.

The legislation would not enable day care providers to properly screen people seeking employment caring for children, and landlords would have no way of making sure tenants are not violent offenders, Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, R-62, said in a statement Thursday.

“Cities across New York state have seen a dramatic increase in violent crimes over the past two years,” Ortt said. “Now is not the time to coddle criminals — now is a time to stand up for law-abiding citizens.”

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