In 1992, John (not his real name) and his friends were stopped by police while riding around in a car. The car was stolen. Everyone, including John, were arrested. He was 18 years old at the time.
The infraction, the only one of his life, led to an adulthood filled with bouncing from job to job once employers found out about his arrest and conviction.
“Although I’ve successfully climbed the corporate ladder in finance, I sometimes wonder would I have climbed quicker,” said John.
Raise The Age, the law that raises the age required of defendants to be tried as an adult, has gotten a lot of publicity in the past several years, but a recent law passed last November could be more of a game changer.
Under the new law (New York Criminal Procedure Law Section 160.59), many misdemeanors and some felonies are eligible for record-sealing, meaning the conviction won’t appear during a person’s background check or be made available to the public. Violent crimes such as homicide and sex crimes aren’t eligible for sealing.
Rick Collins, founding partner at Collins Gann McCloskey & Barry and co-chairman of the NY State Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Sealing Committee, has worked to make this law a reality for several years. He said that the impact of the legislation could be felt immediately.
“This really is a revolutionary amendment to New York State law that really can improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who have been convicted of low-level crimes through the years and decades,” said Collins.
But those convicted of low-level crimes will have to earn their sealed records. They will have to file an application, available online, either through an attorney or on their own, and submit it to a judge. They will also have to demonstrate that they’ve suffered discrimination or collateral negative effects because of the conviction and that they’ve earned the chance to start anew because they haven’t gotten into any trouble since the conviction. The judge would rule on whether the person should be given a clean slate.
“I’ve gotten calls from hundreds of people throughout the years with convictions that date back to the 1980s,” said Collins. “The average person is somebody who made a mistake many years before and got a conviction and had never been arrested before or since. That conviction has been an impediment to the pursuit of happiness that most of us take for granted.”
There are some other qualifications applicants must meet. A person who has more than one felony conviction is not eligible. A person who has more than two misdemeanors is not eligible. At least 10 years must have passed since the conviction. Someone convicted of a minor crime on a Monday could not have it sealed that following Wednesday.
Despite all the conditions, Collins said that he faced resistance.
“The pushback came from different directions,” said Collins. “Anytime change happens, it’s always going to be resisted by the two extremes. There were those who thought this law went too far. There were those who thought this law didn’t go far enough. There were people who thought everyone deserves a second chance no matter what, including people who committed violent crimes.”
John’s now married with children and leads the typical adult life, but he told the AmNews that it doesn’t erase being constantly reminded of what he did when he was 18.
“It’s been 30 years,” John said. “I’m a stand-up guy. I’ve had good jobs. I’ve had good responsibility. When you want to switch jobs, it becomes difficult.”
John said switching jobs would trigger the next background check, and he’s afraid it will be an impediment to being hired. He also said not having to worry about skeletons in the closet undermining his future is a dream come true.
“It means everything to me,” said John. “It means my livelihood. It means being able to pay my mortgage. It means being able to put food on the table. I’d do anything for that.”