It’s the winter holiday season, our second with Covid. Ordinarily some of us would be toasting co-workers at holiday parties and joining them on the dance floor for the Electric Slide. Not this year. Others of us would be trying to figure out how to put food on the table and give our families any sense of holiday cheer when there was no money to pay for it. It’s hard to be festive when you can’t find work.
Covid has put more of us in this second group, particularly those with conviction histories. Some businesses have been forced to close, putting workers out on the job market. Others are trying to rebuild and meet new consumer demand. But even in these times, where you see “help wanted” signs everywhere, employers won’t hire individuals who’ve had contact with the criminal punishment system, including our family members, friends, relatives, and neighbors.
An astounding one in seven New Yorkers has a conviction history, the majority Black and Latinx, reflecting decades of discriminatory policing and prosecution and resulting mass incarceration. A combination of unfounded concerns and, in some cases, raw racial prejudice disguised as business judgment keeps many employers from offering jobs to people with conviction histories. While businesses are crying out for workers, we haven’t seen any change in this pattern. Doors are still closed, making individuals suffer a form of perpetual punishment long after they completed whatever sentence courts demanded, and keeping them, their families, and entire communities mired in poverty.
Clean Slate legislation now pending in the Senate and Assembly (S1553/A6399) can change this. Championed by Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz and supported by advocates, businesses including JPMorgan Chase, faith leaders, organized labor, and workforce development groups, Clean Slate will automatically seal conviction records for most jobs and housing purposes after set periods of time. (Conviction records will still be visible to law enforcement, courts, prosecutors, and any agency charged with reviewing applications to work with vulnerable individuals or approving gun license applications.)
Automatically clearing past conviction records is a matter of simple fairness. In these times – or at any time – we can’t keep holding people back from fully participating in our economy and community as a whole and call ourselves a progressive state.
The quest to change this reality is personal to me. By supporting Clean Slate, I bring forward the mission my father, Justice Thomas R. Jones, bestowed on me. In the 1960s he challenged Robert F. Kennedy and other leaders to do something concrete about revitalizing Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy community rather than just study it. He was the first chairperson of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. But more important, my father was a warrior for social justice. Before entering public life as a State Assemblymember and then joining the bench, he was a tireless civil rights lawyer, fighting for the rights of those in our community and of people of color across the city, the state and indeed across the nation, to live decent, peaceable lives unburdened by discrimination. He fought for their rights to fully and deeply participate in everything the community had to offer.
From his work in the community and on the bench, and just walking the streets of our Brooklyn neighborhood, my father knew that Black and Latinx New Yorkers were treated differently by the criminal punishment system than their white counterparts, and that we were policed differently and unfairly. He knew that conviction records shut people out of opportunity on so many different levels, and that once a person had a conviction history, the flame of hope for making a decent life for themselves and their families – getting a good job, finding a nice, safe place to live and a foothold in the community – were dimmed. He knew that at a certain point – if there was no hope, no help, and no prospects for a successful future – that flame could simply die.
He fought to keep that flame burning. And so, in turn, do I. Two weeks ago, legislative sponsors, directly affected New Yorkers and I spoke at a Clean Slate rally at Bed-Stuy’s Restoration Plaza, near larger-than-life portraits of my father, Robert F. Kennedy, Shirley Chisholm and others. It was an important homecoming. This crucial legislation, which will allow individuals with conviction histories a fair chance to be full participants in the life of this city and state, is something my father would have championed. I’ve been speaking out on records clearance since 2016, when my organization, the Community Service Society, launched the predecessor of the Clean Slate New York campaign.
Clean Slate’s mission: allowing people to move past their records into jobs, stable housing, and full membership in their communities. Let 2022 be the year we pass this vital legislation.
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.