In February, the New York State Senate introduced a bill that seeks to radically reform the state’s criminal record sealing law. While Senate Bill S1553A needs to be fleshed out, it could be a game-changer, and move New York from being the hardest state in which to clear a criminal record to one of the easiest. Lawmakers in both houses must now undertake the hard work of getting this bill into law.
Introduced to committee on February 4, the New York Clean Slate bill, as its supporters call it, seeks to automatically seal records of misdemeanor convictions one year after release and felony records three years after release. Those who are able to avoid re-offending can see their criminal record expunged after five years (for misdemeanors) or seven years (for felonies). The difference between sealing and expunging a criminal record is largely technical and relates mostly to which agencies can still access the record and under what circumstances, with the latter being more thorough.
As it stands now, New York is the hardest state for clearing a criminal record. Our law firm conducted a detailed study of expungement and sealing laws nationwide. Using a single conviction of shoplifting goods valued at $200 as an example, we ranked states based on the length of time a person must wait to file an expungement petition, the cost of the filing fees, and other factors.
New York’s current sealing law requires a person to wait 10 years before applying. This is nonsensical, as more than 83% of crimes in New York are non-violent. Therefore, the vast majority of people with criminal records in this state have never hurt anyone.
Most offenders start off as kids or young adults who make foolish mistakes. Imagine an older teen who thinks he’s slick and tries to pocket a pair of earbuds. He gets caught, sentenced, and eventually released. Should this one bad decision then follow him for 10 years?
Imagine 10 years of being passed over for jobs, denied access to housing, and rejected from colleges, all of which would prevent someone from pursuing a better life. It’s like being handed down yet another sentence.
State Senator Jamaal Bailey and I talked about how those with convictions--even for minor offenses--tend to be dehumanizing. “There are faces and families behind every criminal record,” he told me. “There are people who need to be fed, children who need to be clothed, people who need to be housed. But people just look at the offense, they don’t look at the individual.”
These first convictions—more specifically, the records that result from them—often lead to a downward spiral of re-offending. Criminal records make it difficult to find full-time work, obtain housing, and get an education. These barriers to reintegrating into society can cause a mix of desperation and frustration that can often lead to further offenses.
Statistics show that one-third of re-offenses occur within the first three years of release. What makes the New York Clean Slate bill potentially effective is that it would seal most minor offenses after just one year, thereby eliminating the criminal record as a barrier to a second chance. This, in turn, could reduce the chances of re-offending. Research from Harvard University shows that a person convicted of a crime is far less likely to commit another crime if he or she is gainfully employed, something a criminal record impedes. Other studies, including one from SUNY Albany and another from the Cincinnati Law Review, make it clear that a person is far less likely to commit another crime after having a criminal record cleared.
Other states are getting the message, and there have been numerous new laws passed over the past few years aimed at creating or expanding the ability to clear criminal records. For example, in 2019 Pennsylvania began automatically expunging nonviolent misdemeanors that are 10 years or older. California, Utah, and New Jersey have also begun automatically clearing criminal records. This year, Michigan expanded both the number and types of offenses that can be expunged.
While discussing New York’s record sealing law, State Senator Alessandra Biaggi expressed frustration with being dead last among states that allow records to be cleared.
Some elected officials expressed hesitation about the language of the bill, which only excludes registered sex offenders from eligibility. Yet it would be easy to amend the language to exclude those convicted of violent crimes, which nearly every single state (including New York) already does. It could also make it clear that those who are convicted again after having a record cleared once will not be eligible to have it cleared again.
Those who have paid their debt to society should be given a second chance. The data is clear that most of those who get a second chance will make the most of it. The time is right for New York to pass the Clean Slate bill.
Adam Rosenblum, Esq is managing attorney of Rosenblum Law.