When advocates began a push for a bill dubbed “Clean Slate,” Sen. Zellnor Myrie said he could never have envisioned the broad coalition they knitted together.
After all, the bill is not without controversy: It’s a measure that would allow for the sealing of criminal records once a person has completed his or her sentence and remained out of trouble for a period of years. Three years for a misdemeanor, seven for a felony.
But after years of getting nowhere, “Clean Slate” appears to have momentum for passage in Albany.
A host of leading labor unions, financial institutions and business groups now have come out in favor of the measure after lawmakers listened to them and put in changes to win support.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Proposed legislation that appears to have momentum in Albany would allow for the sealing of criminal records once a person has completed his or her sentence and remained out of trouble for a period of years.
- A host of leading labor unions, financial institutions and business groups have come out in favor of the measure. Supporters said sealing long-past transgressions could help people secure jobs and housing and reduce recidivism.
- The state district attorneys association says it supports the concept, but believes a judge should review any seal request.
Senate and Assembly leaders said they are just hammering out “technicalities” within the bill and could pass it the middle of next week, just before the 2023 legislative session adjourns for the year.
The final discussions center on when the clock begins — when a person leaves jail or finishes parole; what crimes would never be eligible for sealing — sex offenders, for one, and top-level felonies; and what types of agencies would always have access to a person’s records — police and judges and day-care centers, for example. Another example: Departments of motor vehicles would have access to drunken driving records.
Supporters said sealing long-past transgressions could help people secure jobs and housing and reduce recidivism.
Republicans have opposed the bill, but are outnumbered 2-1 in the state Legislature. The other source of criticism has been the state association of district attorneys, which says, among other things, it supports the concept but says a judge should review any seal request.
Democrats who control the levers of power in Albany say agreements on the outstanding issues are within reach.
The momentum for the measure was on display at a rally last week inside the State Capitol, just steps from the Assembly and Senate chambers.
More than a dozen lawmakers were on hand, along with unions representing health care workers, masons, construction workers and municipal employees. Business lobbies, including the New York State Business Council, the Partnership for NYC and the Business Council of Westchester County, were there, too.
It’s a scene that might have been hard to imagine a couple of years ago.
“At the outset of this, I was convinced we’d ultimately get to the win,” Myrie (D-Brooklyn) said. “I could not have foreseen the amount of support we have garnered. … I think that’s a testament to how powerful the issue of redemption and giving people economic opportunity can be.”
One of the key changes made by sponsors was to add a provision freeing businesses that hire an ex-convict from liability.
“With the safety checks they’ve put in the bill, the sponsors really did a great job,” John Ravitz, executive vice present of the Westchester business council and a former Republican state assemblyman, said at the rally.
Besides the liability issue, Ravitz said a previous version of the bill didn’t sufficiently spell out for the business community the process for sealing records and the types of crimes that would be sealed. Now, those concerns have been addressed, he said.
Backing from unions and the business lobby coincided with a growth in support from upstate Democrats.
When advocates began pushing the bill several years ago, “You’d see no upstate senators here,” Sen. Samra Brouk (D-Rochester) said at the rally. Later, she wrote on Twitter: “If we truly believe that the goal of our criminal justice system is to rehabilitate, we must pass Clean Slate to ensure that those who completed their sentence can fully participate in society.”
District attorneys remain opposed to the bill as currently drafted.
Tony Jordan, the Washington County district attorney and president of the statewide association, personally agrees with advocates who said the current process for successfully sealing a record — which includes applying to the original sentencing court — is “cumbersome and difficult.”
“We ought to try to simplify it, so a person can do it without a lawyer,” Jordan said.
But prosecutors object to what Jordan calls “automatic sealing” of most records once the timeline (three years after finishing a misdemeanor sentence; seven years for a felony) is completed.
Further, he said the current proposal wouldn’t consider whether a person has pending charges outside of New York. He said similar legislation in other states, such as Michigan, provides more judicial oversight and does more to differentiate which crimes are eligible for sealing.
Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said the passage of "Clean Slate" would result in "another public safety loss for New York."
"Second chances are important, but people have the right to make informed decisions," Barclay (R-Pulaski) said. "There are any number of occupations where a background check is essential: in personal care settings, jobs that require interacting with children, positions handling finances. But once again, Democrats choose to support erasing criminal histories, eliminating personal accountability and pretending crimes never happened."
Some of the details are still under discussion by Gov. Kathy Hochul, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. But those could be settled by the end of the weekend, sources said. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn at the end of the week.
"We are still negotiating, but I do believe that we are pretty set on the times now,” Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said, referring to the waiting period, post-sentence. “If you have repaid your debt to society, you should not have something hanging over you for a lifetime. I think it's something everybody agrees on."
"We’re trying to come up with something that the governor, Assembly and the Senate can all be happy with,” Heastie (D-Bronx) said. “We're very close. I’m very optimistic that we’ll get something done.”