New Yorkers who complete their sentences and stay out of trouble for a certain period of time will have their criminal records automatically sealed under a long awaited bill signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday.
New York now joins a slew of other states including California, New Jersey, and Michigan, which have passed similar measures in recent years.
The years-long endeavor to get the legislation over the finish line is seen as a major victory in criminal justice reform by various organizations including labor and advocacy groups.
New York's "clean slate" legislation, the latest criminal justice bill signed by the Democratic governor, will automatically seal most criminal records 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 kidnapping or terrorism, will not be eligible for sealing.
"They've paid their debt to society," Hochul said about those with criminal records during the bill signing ceremony at the Brooklyn Museum. "They've gone through the process. They did their time. They're done. But when they reenter society, there are still barriers to housing and jobs. I say no more. We're here today to correct that injustice."
The bill was passed by state lawmakers last June on a party-line vote. Advocates for the legislation say it is necessary for millions of New Yorkers with criminal records who, despite completing their sentences, face hurdles in accessing secure jobs, housing, and education.
Melinda Agnew, a Syracuse resident who was sentenced to three years of probation for an assault charge more than 20 years ago is still dealing with the ramifications. Throughout the years, she said she was shunned from affordable housing, rejected from several other housing programs, and denied job promotions because of her record.
"People have to stop thinking of those with records as permanent outcasts. I know countless others in my position who want to live healthy and stable lives but are locked out of employment and housing due to their criminal records," Agnew, 47, said.
She said the new law is "like a dream come true."
About 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 was based on New Yorkers who had convictions from 1980 to 2021.
In New York City, nearly 400,000, or 80% of people with criminal conviction records are Black or Latinx, according to another study conducted by the research center.
Business groups including companies like Microsoft and JP Morgan Chase have also lauded the bill signing, saying an increase in the labor pool would make the state's economy more competitive amid a national labor shortage.
"Bills like this are going to make positive strides in the workforce," Crystal Griffith, director of workforce development at the New York Business Council, said.
Employers can ask about conviction records at any point in the hiring process under New York state law, however they must consider factors such as whether the conviction has any bearing on the person's ability to do the job. Advocates for the legislation say despite this, those with criminal records face substantial roadblocks to stable employment.
Some Republican lawmakers oppose the bill, advocating instead for an existing sealing statute for criminal convictions through which people can apply to get their records sealed depending on the type of conviction and whether they are a repeat offender.
"Make no mistake, we're already a state of deserving, reasonable second chances. Judges have existing discretion to seal records," said Republican state Senator Jake Ashby in a statement. "During a time of rising antisemitism and bigoted violence, employers will be totally in the dark about many hate crimes and terrorism offenses."
But those who back the state's "clean slate" bill say the application process for the sealing statute is lengthy, cumbersome, and oftentimes 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 new law would not apply to a person who has a pending felony charge in another state, and the new law will go into effect in one year.
In the meantime, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, in coordination with the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, will need to provide data to state administrative agencies so they can seal eligible convictions.
Federal and state law enforcement agencies will still be able to access those sealed convictions under certain conditions, as well as courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys. Gun licensing agencies, law enforcement employers, and employers for work with vulnerable populations such as children and older adults will also be allowed to access the criminal records.
State Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, a Democrat, said the new law is about giving those with convictions a second chance.
"This legislation isn't just about criminal justice. It isn't just about public safety. It isn't just about economic justice. It's about redemption, because people can change. People can get better. People can repent, and people can and should be forgiven," she said at the bill signing ceremony.
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