URBAN AGENDA: Serious Criminal Justice Reform Efforts Must Include Records Expungement

David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 6/9/2020, 7:55 p.m.
George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer is a sickening reminder that in 2020, black people ...
David R. Jones Contributed

George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer is a sickening reminder that in 2020, black people are still treated as if they are disposable. His killing, just the latest in a line that goes back decades – centuries even – has rightly unleashed a torrent of anger in cities and small towns across the United States. Protests are into their second week and show no signs of abating.

We can only hope that America is finally waking up to the understanding that, no matter how many times we stamp e pluribus unum on our nickels and dimes, we are not one, not really, and that those nickels and dimes are not evenly distributed. Race-based structural inequality is deeply rooted in every facet of our society. The staggering death toll from COVID-19 tore apart black and brown families, with less impact on white families whose generational access to better health care, better jobs, better incomes, and better housing kept them if not safe, at least safer.

And the pandemic is not done with us yet.

Not only has it killed our friends, relatives, co-workers and neighbors, it has torn apart our economy, forcing businesses large and small to close. Unemployment rates are shocking, particularly for low-wage workers, and may climb higher. The emerging landscape looks grim, and black and brown people will fare the worst. Even before COVID-19 struck, unemployment rates for African Americans were almost twice that of whites. This is not just the result of simple prejudice or lack of opportunity; our deeply racist criminal legal system is also to blame.

Police incursion into the fabric of daily life of black and brown people – with resulting arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonment – has devastated entire communities, leaving millions with the indelible mark of a criminal record. In other words, once we prosecute and punish a person – and in New York that person is usually black or brown – we continue to punish them for a lifetime, because we make them bear the criminal record publicly. In a world where a background check is almost universally required to get a job, to get an apartment, or to get into college, a person’s life chances are permanently damaged.

This is about to get much, much worse unless we do something to stop it. Competition for jobs in our post-pandemic economy will be fierce, and I have no doubt that despite laws on the books that are supposed to prevent this (including the New York City Fair Chance Act, one of the strongest “ban the box” laws in the nation), a criminal record will once again be used as a sorting mechanism, resulting in sky-high unemployment rates for individuals with conviction histories, particularly for people of color.

Broad-based Clean Slate Legislation is Also a Jobs Bill

The important thing to know right now is that we can do something to stop it. This past week, the New York State legislature reconvened to pass critical policing reform, and all signs show they mean business when it comes to other reforms aimed at improving the lives of those already scarred by the system. It’s critical – essential – that these reforms include provisions for broad automatic criminal records expungement. Why? Because stale conviction records do not predict future lawless behavior; instead, they produce a lifetime of difficulty finding work, a place to live, or a future for oneself and one’s family – a grim situation disproportionately and generationally borne by people of color, and one that will only intensify if we don’t act. Our existing state records clearance laws provide almost no way out of this reality, with only extremely limited and porous records sealing – on application, and at the whim of a judge – available to a very few.

This must change. What we need now: broad-based Clean Slate legislation directing New York’s courts and record repositories to automatically expunge criminal records – both misdemeanors and felonies – after time has passed. This is crucial to ensure that people with conviction histories not be prevented from taking part in our new economy, no matter what it looks like. It’s a matter of fairness first and foremost, but also a matter of common sense: while repairing past harms, expungement legislation is also a jobs bill, one that we should all support. We are going to need everyone to participate if we are to return New York to a functioning, vibrant place to work and do business, and to make it a place where people want to live and raise families, no matter their race, ethnicity, or political affiliation.

As we do the hard work of rebuilding as a state, indeed as a nation, we must do everything we can to ensure everyone can fully participate in every aspect of our society, including the millions among us scarred by a criminal record. Clean Slate expungement legislation has never been more important.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.