URBAN AGENDA: Time for New York to Take Up Clean Slate Program

David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 12/12/2019, midnight
As the 2020 legislative session approaches, many New Yorkers are wondering how legislators can follow up on 2019’s landmark efforts.
David R. Jones Contributed

As the 2020 legislative session approaches, many New Yorkers are wondering how legislators can follow up on 2019’s landmark efforts. Last session, vital new protections for tenants, voting reform and important criminal justice protections were written into law. And while marijuana decriminalization legislation was less than advocates of legalization had hoped for, the law included an important new provision directing state agencies to automatically expunge records of convictions for conduct now decriminalized.

It’s time to take the automatic expungement conversation further, and extend the process to cover other criminal convictions. The need is real: one in seven New Yorkers has at least one criminal conviction on their record. A criminal conviction is a life-altering event. Doors that were once open – to jobs, a place to live, a license to practice a trade, to the right to serve on a jury or in some cases even the right to vote – are closed. Your ability to provide for yourself and your family: in many cases that’s changed forever. And the burden is carried mostly by black and Latinx New Yorkers, many of whom fell victim to our shameful past decades of racially-biased policing and overincarceration.

The need is also real because New York does very little – legislatively and otherwise – to allow people to move beyond past mistakes. In this we lag behind other states like Pennsylvania and even Utah. Apart from marijuana-related expungement and a limited sealing statute, C.P.L. § 160.59, there is very little relief for New Yorkers with conviction histories. In other words, in most cases your felony and misdemeanor record continues to exist in perpetuity, available for any member of the public to see. This is true no matter what good works you do or achievements you accomplish after the conviction and paying your debt to society. And this is true even though research shows that at a certain point criminal records are not a predictor of future criminal justice involvement.

The reasons that C.P.L. §160.59, our sealing statute, hasn’t been more impactful are relatively straightforward. First, the eligibility requirements are too stringent. Limiting relief to individuals who have no more than two convictions in their entire lifetime fails to account for the over-policing and prosecuting of poor communities of color, or for the ways in which poverty, addiction, and mental illness are often criminalized in this state. The simple fact of having more than two convictions in their lifetime should in no way render someone unworthy of relief from perpetual punishment, but right now, it does.

Secondly, the ten-year waiting period to apply is far too long. In that time, a person’s life can be irrevocably altered by the burdens imposed by a criminal record. One study estimates that the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated individuals is over 27 percent. Those who can find work are limited to positions and salaries well below their potential. Many people have no choice but to accept the reduced horizon of opportunity imposed by their conviction history. Lastly, because C.P.L. §160.59 is an application-based rather than automatic process, it is overly burdensome on both the applicant and the court system.