David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

The Clean Slate Act ensures that stale criminal records do not continue to haunt individuals when they have successfully returned to their communities for years. However, opponents would have you believe the bill would harm public safety. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

As this year’s state budget process winds to an end, supporters of Clean Slate are pressing Albany lawmakers to rise above the fearmongering that typically comes with most efforts to introduce progressive criminal justice reforms and act – through the budget process or before the current legislative session ends in June – to pass automatic records sealing legislation.  

A 2020 Brennan Center report estimated the annual and lifetime earning loss of people with criminal records. Those with a felony or misdemeanor conviction earn between 22 percent and 16 percent less each year than their peers, adding up to nearly $100,000 over a lifetime. For those who were incarcerated after conviction, however, the effect is a staggering 52 percent loss in annual earnings and over $480,000 in a lifetime. 

Contrast that with a recent study published in the Harvard Law Review which found large improvements in average employment rates and wages for people who had their records cleared with legislation similar to the Clean Slate Act. After a year, they earned an average of more than $4,400 per year in wages, according to the study. This would not eliminate the effect of incarceration on wages, but it would mitigate the racial wage gap perpetuated by the twin forces of generational poverty and mass incarceration.

The Clean Slate Act works because it automatically hides convictions from private employers and landlords after a certain amount of time, but not at the expense of public safety: It doesn’t apply to all jobs, and people only earn Clean Slate sealing by being crime-free for several years in the community. 

Clean Slate maintains protections for vulnerable people and sensitive occupations. Convictions will still be visible for such jobs—anywhere a background check is required or permitted or that restricts hiring people with criminal records. So those convictions will follow people who wish to work in a school or with financial information. And records will never be sealed to law enforcement or for sex offenses.

Clean Slate seals misdemeanors after three years and felonies after seven, but that time does not start running until after conviction or release from incarceration—whichever is later. So individuals do not earn Clean Slate sealing by simply serving their time. They have to serve their time plus remain crime-free in their neighborhoods for several years.

Clean Slate recognizes that a person who hasn’t gotten into trouble for seven years—and for many years while in prison before that—should not be stigmatized by a criminal conviction when they apply for basic jobs and housing. And the three- and seven-year waiting periods are based on decades of criminology research demonstrating that the passage of time is the most reliable predicter of whether someone with a criminal record will commit a new crime.

Employers, of course, want their employees and customers to be safe as well. They don’t want to hire someone who would be a risk. But an employer can only be liable for what it knows, or should know, about, and it can’t know about sealed cases, so Clean Slate reduces negligent hiring liability for employers. And that’s in line with existing barriers to lawsuits against employers who hire people with criminal records, along with longstanding state policy promoting their employment. 

That’s why Clean Slate has a broad coalition of support, from large employers and business associations to unions to faith groups to social services organizations. Businesses need workers. Unions want more members. Faith groups want justice. And social services agencies want their client’s accomplishments to lead to real stability—as should we all. People should be rewarded for turning away from crime and contributing to their communities. 

We cannot ignore the fact that the criminal punishment system has historically treated Black and Latino New Yorkers differently than their white counterparts, with harmful consequences for their ability to participate in our economy and community as a whole. But we can take progressive steps to restore fairness to the system. A majority in the State Senate support the bill (S.211/A.1029), as do 68 Assemblymembers. This is the year to pass this common-sense bill. 

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.

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