The “Clean Slate” bill, sponsored by State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, would create a two-step process to automatically seal and expunge certain conviction records.
Advocates say those steps would help eliminate barriers to employment, housing and higher education for formerly incarcerated people who have already paid their debt to society.
Last Thursday, members of the Clean Slate NY campaign, including several nonprofit organizations and legal service providers, gathered at the Barclays Center to introduce the legislation and discuss the impact it would have on people with criminal records.
“This is a moment of opportunity to correct, repair and heal our communities that have been heavily impacted by the criminal punishment system,” said Michael “Zaki” Smith, a policy entrepreneur with Next100.
Smith said the 2.3 million New Yorkers who have a criminal record have been “serving a silent life sentence of legal discrimination” long after they have served their time.
He said was removed from a job after being there for four years after his employer found out he had a criminal record. Smith was also recently denied life insurance, which he attributed to his record.
“There was never an opportunity for me to demonstrate who I had been over the 10 years prior, no way to demonstrate who I had been outside of my criminal record,” he said. “All they saw was my record.
“This bill is long past due, we have suffered enough,” Smith added. “After we have served our time, what other debt do we owe?”
For Kandra Clark, vice president of Policy and Strategy at Exodus Transitional Community, housing was the biggest barrier. It took her five years after she came home from prison to find a studio apartment, and nine years to get a one-bedroom apartment.
“The collateral consequences of a conviction record are far-reaching and never ending,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how many decades you’ve been home.”
Clark noted that 95 percent of people who are incarcerated will return home to the communities from which they left. She said it should be common sense policy to set them up to succeed.
“Their success means their family’s success and their community’s success,” she added. “Clean Slate can give people a real second chance at life.”
Cruz said she is committed to convincing her colleagues that the legislation will save the lives of thousands of people who have already served their time, yet continue to be punished.
She told advocates that one of the points of contention that opponents of the bill will bring up is that it will be bad for victims, a narrative that she said she will fight back on.
“I am a survivor, I am a victim, and I’m here to say I am proud to carry this bill because people deserve a second chance,” she said. “I’m not going to allow victims and survivors to be used to dehumanize our community.”
The first step of the bill would seal conviction records for most civil purposes, like employment and housing, Cruz explained. This would happen after one year for misdemeanors and three years for felonies.
The second step, which is expungement of the records, would happen after five years for misdemanors and seven years for felonies. There are exceptions to automatic seal and expungement, such as for rape and other serious crimes.
Lawmakers cited a recent study that found in Michigan, within one year of expunging conviction records, people with those records were 11 percent more likely to be employed and earn 22 percent higher wages.
“We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Myrie said. “New Yorkers with conviction records deserve a Clean Slate.
“The rest of us deserve to live in a state where our criminal justice system lives up to its highest ideals,” he added. “Our communities will be stronger, safer and more stable if everyone is able to contribute to the best of their abilities.”