Governor Kathy Hochul has often declared that New York’s public safety is her priority. But so far, she has let the legislature stymie her efforts to fight crime. In 2022, Hochul pushed to amend New York’s discovery law; her proposal would have allowed more case prosecution by removing district attorneys’ duty to collect non-substantive case material. The legislature blocked it. Earlier this year, Hochul declared that the state’s bail laws free dangerous individuals and increase recidivism. But the amendment she squeezed past the legislature afforded judges merely a modicum of extra discretion.
This month, the state legislature passed another measure that would tangibly worsen public safety. The Clean Slate Act now awaits Hochul’s signature. She should stand up for New Yorkers’ safety and veto the law.
New York already has similar legislation on the books, allowing criminal records to be sealed through a process of judicial review. Offenders with either one felony and one misdemeanor or two misdemeanors can have those convictions sealed after a decade, provided they don’t reoffend. Exclusions exist for sex crimes, murder, manslaughter, arson, kidnapping, criminal weapons possession, and other dangerous crimes that future potential employers might reasonably need to know about.
But proponents of the new bill, including such prominent businesses as JPMorgan Chase and Verizon and advocacy groups like Legal Aid, argue that many offenders who are eligible for record-sealing do not apply and thereby miss out on potential benefits. The economy would benefit, they say, from having more ex-offenders in the workplace. And they emphasize that individuals who have served their time should have every opportunity to become productive members of society.
Like so many recent reforms, however, the Clean Slate Act’s good intentions are undermined by what the law would do in practice. The new legislation would automatically seal cases with no human review, no application or court proceedings. These automated processes always make errors. And mistakes could have tragic consequences—if, say, the system incorrectly seals records of a recent violent-felony offender now applying to be a nanny. A more responsible bill might start automated record-sealing with petit larcenies, gauge the accuracy and efficiency of the process, and only then consider expansion to more serious crimes.
No reliable mechanism prevents record-sealing for individuals with cases pending or who are parolees in other states. Someone could, for instance, have a case pending for an assault committed while working as a nanny in New Jersey or be on parole for an assault committed while doing the same work in Connecticut, and still have his criminal record automatically sealed in New York. Indeed, under the new legislation, a New York nanny agency would not even be allowed to ask this prospective applicant about past convictions. Currently, employers can ask about conviction records at any time in the hiring process; they must consider the applicant’s record in a broad context, however, including whether the conviction has bearing on his ability to do the job, amount of time since the offense, seriousness of the offense, and other factors. But under the new law, employers and landlords would be blocked from even inquiring about past convictions.
The Clean Slate Act expands crime categories eligible for sealing to aggravated first-degree manslaughter, strangulation, and crimes against children (other than those requiring sex-offender registration). Excluded are most Class A felonies, including murder, kidnapping, and many sex crimes—but not Class A felonies relating to drugs. These, too, would be sealed.
The countdown until cases are sealed would start running right when the prisoner is released—or from the moment of sentencing, if someone is not incarcerated—even if he is on parole, probation, or conditional discharge. An offender’s good behavior, therefore, gets tallied even while he is still under supervision or influenced by incentives to act positively.
If Legal Aid lawyers want to increase the percentage of eligible offenders who apply for record-sealing, they could always commit more pro bono hours to ushering them through the process. Concerned corporations could fund this assistance. Indeed, Verizon and JPMorgan Chase could hire more applicants with unsealed criminal convictions, spearhead initiatives to inspire more such hiring, and set up a tracking system to see how well employees with unsealed convictions perform. If offenders demonstrate responsibility and excellence, that would be the best inducement for others to welcome them more quickly into positions of trust. Instead, the Clean Slate Act, like the Empire State’s other recent criminal-justice reforms, aims to score a progressive win while ignoring the costs to crime victims.
Governor Hochul can make these points when she vetoes the bill.
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