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N.Y. will automatically seal old criminal records under new law

“Removing barriers to reentry and providing justice-involved individuals with a second chance is critical to the rehabilitation process,” NYS DOCCS Acting Commissioner Daniel Martuscello said


November 16, 2023 — Brooklyn, NY — Governor Kathy Hochul today signed the Clean Slate Act (S.7551A/A.1029C), which allows certain criminal records to be sealed years after an individual is sentenced or released from incarceration if that individual is not subsequently convicted of an additional criminal act. (Susan Watts/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

Susan Watts/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul/Susan Watts/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

By Maysoon Khan
Associated Press/Report for America

ALBANY, N.Y. — New Yorkers who complete their sentences and stay out of trouble for a certain period of time will have their criminal records automatically sealed under a long awaited bill signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday.

New York now joins a slew of other states including California, New Jersey and Michigan, which have passed similar measures in recent years.

The years-long endeavor to get the legislation over the finish line is seen as a major victory in criminal justice reform by various organizations including labor and advocacy groups.

New York’s “clean slate” legislation, the latest criminal justice bill signed by the Democratic governor, will automatically seal most criminal records three years after serving time or parole for a misdemeanor and eight years for felony convictions. Sex crimes and most Class A felonies, such as murder, will not be eligible for sealing.

“They’ve paid their debt to society,” Hochul said about those with criminal records during the bill signing ceremony at the Brooklyn Museum. “They’ve gone through the process. They did their time. They’re done. But when they reenter society, there are still barriers to housing and jobs. I say no more. We’re here today to correct that injustice.”

The bill was passed by state lawmakers last June on a party-line vote. Advocates for the legislation say it is necessary for millions of New Yorkers with criminal records who, despite completing their sentences, face hurdles in accessing secure jobs, housing, and education.

Melinda Agnew, a Syracuse resident who was sentenced to three years of probation for an assault charge more than 20 years ago is still dealing with the ramifications. Throughout the years, she said she was shunned from affordable housing, rejected from several other housing programs, and denied job promotions because of her record.

“People have to stop thinking of those with records as permanent outcasts. I know countless others in my position who want to live healthy and stable lives but are locked out of employment and housing due to their criminal records,” Agnew, 47, said.

She said the new law is “like a dream come true.”

About 2.2 million people in New York have criminal convictions, according to a study by the Data Collaborative for Justice, a research center at John Jay College. The study was based on New Yorkers who had convictions from 1980 to 2021.

In New York City, nearly 400,000, or 80% of people with criminal conviction records are Black or Latinx, according to another study conducted by the research center.

Business groups including big companies like Microsoft and JP Morgan Chase have also lauded the bill signing, saying an increase in the labor pool would make the state’s economy more competitive amid a national labor shortage.

“Bills like this are going to make positive strides in the workforce,” Crystal Griffith, director of workforce development at the New York Business Council, said.

Employers can ask about conviction records at any point in the hiring process under New York state law, however they must consider factors such as whether the conviction has any bearing on the person’s ability to do the job. Advocates for the legislation say despite this, those with criminal records face substantial roadblocks to stable employment.

Some Republican lawmakers who oppose the bill have repeatedly pointed to an existing sealing statute for criminal convictions through which people can apply to get their records sealed depending on the type of conviction and whether they are a repeat offender.

“Make no mistake, we’re already a state of deserving, reasonable second chances. Judges have existing discretion to seal records,” said Republican state Senator Jake Ashby in a statement. “During a time of rising antisemitism and bigoted violence, employers will be totally in the dark about many hate crimes.”

But those who back the state’s “clean slate” bill say the application process for the sealing statute is lengthy, cumbersome, and oftentimes expensive.

Less than 1% of New Yorkers eligible for sealing criminal records through that statute have successfully done so, according to a study conducted by Santa Clara University.

The new law will go into effect in one year. It will not apply to a person who has a pending felony charge in another state.

Law enforcement agencies, as well as courts, prosecutors, and defense attorneys will still be able to access those sealed convictions under certain conditions. Gun licensing agencies and employers for work with vulnerable populations such as children or older people will also be allowed to access the criminal records.

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Acting Commissioner Daniel F. Martuscello III said the new law is about removing barriers and giving people a second chance.

“Removing barriers to reentry and providing justice-involved individuals with a second chance is critical to the rehabilitation process. The Clean Slate Act will not only further the Department’s efforts to reduce recidivism, but will bring hope to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers by providing greater access to employment and housing,” Martuscello said in a statement. “I applaud Governor Hochul for her leadership in implementing such impactful change while fully prioritizing public safety. The Department has already begun working with our State partners to ensure that the Office of Court Administration has the resources necessary to implement this law as expeditiously as possible.”