Some people convicted of some crimes may deserve to have the record of their offenses sealed after completing their sentences and staying out of trouble for a reasonable period. The New York State Legislature should give proposals to authorize such official forgiveness a serious look.
But striking the right balance between the interests of the public, ex-offenders and law enforcement won't be easy. A raft of details have to be hammered out, in legislative hearings and public debate, to determine if it makes sense to shield some criminal records from public view.
A proposal from the New York State Bar Association is a good place to start. It would require anyone convicted of a misdemeanor to wait five years before asking a judge to seal the record. For a felony, the wait would be eight years. Records of sex crimes, drunken driving, crimes against children and public corruption could not be sealed. And a sealed record would become public again if an offender committed a new crime.
Bills similar to the bar association proposal have already been introduced by two New York City assemblymen. They would each impose different conditions and restrictions. So there's a lot for the legislature to chew on.
Clearly murder and all homicides should be excluded from any list of crimes that could be sealed. How about all felonies? Should repeat offenders be ineligible? What if the previous conviction was in another state?
When an offender asks a judge to seal the record of a conviction, should the law require the court to notify victims of the crime and the district attorney who prosecuted the case so they could be heard? What guidelines must a judge follow when deciding to seal a record? And what should trigger making a sealed record public again: a new criminal charge or a new conviction?
People do foolish things, and sometimes those things are criminal. Freeing some from the burden of a lifelong record that compromises their ability to get jobs, educations or places to live is a noble notion. But only if it can be done in a way that doesn't compromise public safety.