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A Clean Slate in New York State

Wed, 11/22/2023 - 09:37

Sealing records of offenders: a second chance or a ‘pro-crime policy’?

To improve employment, housing, and educational conditions for people who have been convicted of crimes and served their time, a new state law will allow many offenders to have their records sealed, provided they remain “crime free” for a certain length of time.

Dubbing it the Clean Slate Act, Gov. Kathy Hochul, who signed the legislation last Thursday, said that “the best crime-fighting tool is a good-paying job. That’s why I support giving New Yorkers a clean slate after they’ve paid their debt to society and gone years without an additional offense.”

The U.S. Department of Justice says on its website that “most often, prisoners are returning to impoverished and disenfranchised neighborhoods with few social supports and persistently high crime rates,” which contributes to recidivism, the likelihood that an offense will be repeated. Helping former inmates find and maintain meaningful jobs, says the Justice Department, is a proven way to prevent recidivism.

The new legislation takes effect Nov. 16, 2024, and establishes a timeline for the state’s Office of Court Administration to identify and seal certain records: Misdemeanors after three years and felonies after eight years, “on the condition that the individual convicted of the offense has not committed an additional crime in the intervening period.”

According to Gov. Hochul’s announcement, sex crime records will not be sealed. Nor will Class A felonies — the most serious offenses defined by state law, such as murder, trafficking, terrorism, kidnapping, and arson.

Courts and law enforcement agencies will continue to have access to all criminal records, as will employers, such as schools, who are authorized by the state to carry out “fingerprint-based criminal history checks on job applicants.” Records will also be accessible to those conducting background checks for firearms licenses.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor) voted in favor of the bill, which he said had “a broad coalition” of support. “The final bill represents a balance between public safety and an individual’s ability to have a second chance after completing one’s sentence and demonstrating a record of rehabilitation,” he said in an email to The Star.

State Senator Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) denounced the legislation, calling it “the latest pro-crime policy to be championed in Albany by out-of-touch politicians who care more about catering to the extremes of their party than protecting the men and women they serve.”

“This new law will supersede proven existing mechanisms, such as certificates of good conduct, certificates of relief from civil disability, and expungement of records, which already provide avenues for ex-offenders to seek rehabilitation and reintegration into society,” Mr. Palumbo said in a statement. “The most troubling aspect of Clean Slate is, the prisoner doesn’t even have to engage in any efforts toward rehabilitation — they automatically get rewarded under this law.”

Susan Menu, a local defense attorney, supports the Clean Slate Act. “People deserve a second chance. It’s interesting that in states where they have passed this, people don’t tend to re-offend. The reason they do is poverty. In not having a job, they feel they don’t have a future.”

The United States has both the highest incarceration rate in the world and the largest racial disparity in incarceration, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty. Particularly when a father is jailed, “Financial adversity associated with incarceration can continue after [his] release as ex-offenders struggle to get hired because of their prison record.”

“When you have a criminal record, it is near impossible to get a job,” Ms. Menu said. “This crushes them.”

Pat O’Connell, chief of the East End Bureau under Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney, said he has some concerns about the new law.

“The D.A.’s office has always been in favor of giving people a second chance through the sealing laws that existed previous to this,” said Mr. O’Connell, who supervises prosecutors working in 10 courts across East End municipalities, but this goes a bit beyond that.

By way of example, he said he worries about someone with a felony drunken-driving conviction or leaving-the-scene conviction getting hired as a school bus driver. He also took issue with establishing an administrative office to conduct the sealing of records.

“I don’t know if the public’s interests can be protected,” Mr. O’Connell said. “If there was somehow a judge overseeing it and being a gatekeeper, that would still ensure an opportunity for a person who has been convicted to have their record cleared for employment or housing and educational opportunities, but at the same time it would balance out and protect the general public. There is no mechanism for a neutral party like a judge to look at it and say, ‘Yes, this should be sealed.’ ”

Katherine Mitchell, a licensed clinical social worker who owns East End Counseling, based in Sag Harbor, lauded the passage of the Clean Slate Act. She largely counsels local people facing alcohol and drug-related charges, including those dealing with addiction.

“We have clients who have made a lot of mistakes, who have gone through all the struggles and did the work of personal change,” she said. “When people have genuinely done the work and taken responsibility and made necessary changes, it can be very helpful in keeping doors open.”

To truly help people on all sides of the issue, Ms. Mitchell said, future legislation should tie in housing concerns and immigration policy.

“We have a lot of very closely interconnected problems,” she said. “All of those things have to move together.”

 

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