ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New Yorkers who commit crimes could have their records automatically sealed if they stay out of trouble for a certain number of years after they have finished serving their sentences under a bill passed by state lawmakers Friday.
The “clean slate” legislation would automatically seal most recent convictions — three years after serving time or parole for a misdemeanor and eight years for felony convictions. Sex crimes and most Class A felonies, such as murder, will not be eligible for sealing.
The state Assembly debated the bill for almost five hours before passing it on a party-line vote, garnering applause and cheers. The state Senate followed with its own approval late Friday.
Some liberal lawmakers and unions who support the bill say it would give New Yorkers a path forward that is not encumbered by past mistakes. They say a criminal record often means difficulty obtaining secure work and housing.
That’s the case for Ismael Diaz Jr., of Long Island, who was released from prison seven years ago and is still struggling to find secure employment.
Diaz, who served almost 10 years in prison for manslaughter, said he went through three rounds of interviews for a janitorial position at a supermarket before being told he was “unemployable” because of his criminal record.
“I was stressed out because I was trying to get a job and you can’t because of having a record,” said Diaz, 52. “I want to earn a salary and take care of my family and start building up my life where it is supposed to be.”
Other states including Utah and Michigan have passed similar measures. California passed legislation last year that would automatically seal conviction and arrest records for most ex-offenders who are not convicted of another felony for four years.
Business groups including big companies like JPMorgan Chase and Verizon have also endorsed the New York legislation. They say increasing the labor pool would boost the state’s economy and make the state more competitive.
Under New York state law, employers can ask about conviction records at any point in the hiring process, but they must consider factors such as whether the conviction has any bearing on the person’s ability to do the job. But advocates for the legislation say that despite that, those with criminal records face huge barriers to stable employment.
Nearly 2.2 million people in New York have criminal convictions, according to a study by the Data Collaborative for Justice, a research center at John Jay College. The study is based on New Yorkers who had convictions from 1980 to 2021.
But Republican lawmakers and victim advocacy groups have criticized the legislation, warning it will take away accountability for those who have committed crimes.
“I’m sorry, you committed it, you’re convicted of it, and unfortunately you have a debt to pay to society, and some aspects of those will be with you forever, just like you did to your victim,” said Republican state Assemblymember Anthony Palumbo, also a former prosecutor, before floor deliberations. “I think this is completely disregarding the victims of those crimes and disregarding society as a whole.”
Palumbo said he favors an existing sealing statute in New York through which people can apply to seal their records depending on the type of conviction and whether they’re a repeat offender. But advocates for the state’s “clean slate” bill said the application process is cumbersome and expensive.
Less than 1% of New Yorkers eligible for sealing criminal records through that statute have successfully done so, according to a study conducted by Santa Clara University.
The automatic sealing would not apply to a person who has a pending felony charge in another state.
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, in coordination with the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, will be tasked to provide data to state administrative agencies so that they can seal eligible convictions.
Those sealed convictions could be later accessed by any court, prosecutors and defense attorneys under certain conditions, as well as by federal and state law enforcement agencies. Gun licensing agencies, law enforcement employers, and employers for work with vulnerable populations such as children and older adults will still be allowed to access the criminal records.
The original version of the bill excluded only sex crimes from automatic sealing and required seven years to pass until a felony conviction could be sealed.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she wants to make sure the bill would not have “any negative, unintended consequences” while also giving those with criminal records a second chance.
“It’s not a simple answer. These are complicated issues, far more than people may realize at first glance,” Hochul told reporters at an unrelated event earlier in the week. “My goal as governor is to make sure we have forward thinking, progressive policies that actually work.”
The bill would go into effect one year after it is signed into law.
Maysoon Khan is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Maysoon Khan on Twitter.