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New York set to pass ‘Clean Slate’ bill which could help millions seal old criminal convictions

Bill could affect 2.3 million New Yorkers

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Monday 25 April 2022 18:41 BST
‘Clean Slate’ law takes effect in Utah for many ex offenders

New York is on the cusp of passing a “Clean Slate” bill that could help millions of people with old criminal records automatically seal their files and move on with their lives. If passed, the law would be a major milestone for the Clean Slate movement in one of the country’s most populous states.

The Clean Slate Act, which is included in governor Kathy Hochul’s proposed budget, would automatically seal felony records after seven years and misdemeanors after three for people who have completed their sentences and post-release supervision or parole and avoided further incident. Exceptions to the law include those on permanent sex offender lists.

Clean Slate, according to New York-based criminal justice advocate Ashish Prashar, who is formerly incarcerated himself, would allow people to finally overcome the “wide ranging and enduring collateral damage” a past conviction or arrest has on things like job applications and access to government benefits.

“A lot of people are perpetually punished by the criminal justice system,” he told The Independent. “The loss of potential earnings has a larger economic consequence for our society. This is a moral thing and a justice thing, but there’s an economic argument there,” he said. “It hurts communities. It hurts businesses…Are we really opening our economy, or proactively taking a knife to it?

There are more than 2 million New Yorkers with some form of criminal record, about a tenth of the state’s total population. Past arrests and convictions are frequently used to deny people access to work, housing, and other services needed to avoid recidivism.

Under the current records-clearing regime in New York, only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of people eligible to clean their records ever do so, given the expense, time-consuming, and demoralising nature of the process.

There are still some matters to iron out — a legislative version of the bill would see formerly incarcerated people be eligible years sooner than the governor’s version, and legislators missed their 1 April deadline to agree on a budget — but a broad coalition of legislators, businesses, and justice advocates have rallied behind clean slate in New York. They’re cautiously optimistic it could pass, after a previous attempt failed last year.

For some, passing clean slate is a racial and economic justice issue, as roughly three quarters of those with past criminal records in New York are Black or Latinx.

“The Clean Slate bill not only addresses the issues of poverty, not only addresses the issues of fairness, not only addresses the issues of social justice, but it addresses the issue of morality and ethics. It is an ethical thing to do,” Dr Divine Pryor, Co-Chair of New York State NAACP criminal justice committee, told WSKG.

“It is devastating for those convicted of crimes to know that employers, landlords and other members of the community have such easy access to their criminal records,” New York State Bar Association President T Andrew Brown said in a statement. “It is in no one’s best interest to keep so many fellow New Yorkers from leading full, productive lives once they have paid their debts to society. The current system — which has a disproportionate impact on people of colour — must be reformed.”

Those with criminal records stand to make up to $500,000 less over a lifetime compared to those with no record, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center, which supports the Clean Slate bill.

“There is no such thing as a “minor” crim­inal record,” it wrote in a recent report, highlight how old criminal records “can func­tion as a poverty trap that prevents people from achiev­ing prosper­ity, sets up future gener­a­tions for mater­ial depriva­tion, and under­mines our communit­ies’ well-being.”

Business and labour groups including JP Morgan Chase and the 1199 SIEU union have also thrown their support behind the bill.

“As one of the state’s largest private unionized employers, we think people deserve second chances. This issue affects millions of New Yorkers, including our customers, our employees and our business,” David Lamendola, an executive at telecom company Verizon, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Buffalo News. “This measure will not end poverty or systemic racism, but it will do more to help people get back on their feet than all of the criminal justice reforms of the last few years combined.”

The bill has some conservative critics, however, who view the Clean Slate bill as a threat to public safety, part of a larger backlash against liberal priorities like bail and pre-trial detention reforms which have become controversial amid a pandemic-era surge in violent crime.

The New York Post editorial board called Clean slate a “gift to New York criminals” last week, arguing, “Even employers in the fields of child care, elder care and finance would have no knowledge whatsoever of a prospective hire’s prior convictions. How could any lawmaker in good conscience support such a law?”

(The bill

Licensing authorities and police would still be able to access the sealed records in some cases, like applications for gun permits or investigations in to new offences.

Advocates argue that by imposing wait periods between release and record-clearing, which could still potentially last decades because of technicalities in the governor’s version of Clean Slate, those who pose a genuine threat to public safety would not have their records cleared.

Others point to the research on the subject, showing the synergy between record-clearing, employment, and public safety.

Studies show that those who obtain expungement are extremely unlikely to commit a crime again, and, relatedly, within the first year afterwards, see a 23 per cent increase in income and 11 per cent increase in employment.

If Clean Slate passes, New York will join a diverse group of bipartisan states which have adopted similar bills, including Michigan, Utah, and Pennsylvania.

Clean slate policies are some of the many proposals that will be discussed at the American Workforce and Justice Summit 2022 , a two-day gathering of more than 150 business leaders, policy experts and campaign organizations focused on how corporations can meaningfully engage in justice issues and create change in the workplace and beyond. AWJ 2022, a project of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, will take place in Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 and 5 May. The Independent will be reporting from AWJ 2022 as media partner.

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