Clean Slate Bill Touted As Path To Jobs For Offenders

ALBANY — What supporters are calling a new and improved version of Clean Slate legislation is aimed at giving people convicted of certain felonies and misdemeanors a better shot at landing employment by sealing their court records.

The measure is gaining traction at the statehouse. The state Senate, controlled by Democrats, has included it in the resolutions that will be part of negotiations for a new state budget.

The bill also has significant support in the Assembly, though it remains unclear whether there are enough backers in that chamber for passage. Another question mark is whether it would get the seal of approval from Gov. Kathy Hochul.

But there is no mystery as to where GOP lawmakers stand: They are against it, contending those court records should not be cloaked in secrecy.

Those promoting the measure are citing the support for it from the Business Council of New York State, which represents some 3500 companies, as well as several large employers, including Microsoft, Verizon and JP Morgan Chase.

A previous incarnation of the bill was bottled up when the state Department of Education registered concerns that the sealing of records could create headaches for school districts in doing background checks on applicants for jobs.

Crystal Griffith, director of workforce development for the Business Council, said those and other employer concerns have been addressed when the bill was revamped.

Griffith said employers hiring for jobs dealing with vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, children and people with disabilities, would continue to be able to check the conviction records of applicants, as would police departments, the courts, county prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys.

“A lot of the advocacy we’re doing now is just getting the word out there about the changes that have been made,” Griffith told CNHI.

She acknowledged advocates for the measure are hoping it gets wrapped into the legislation for a new state budget, rather than waiting until after what is known as the post-budget portion of the current legislative session.

Republicans say they will seek to stop the bill whenever it comes up.

While the measure is designed to allow those who have been sentenced for felonies and misdemeanors to get a second chance as they reintegrate into society, Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said many people who have been convicted of crimes were already given two, three or even more chances before ending up with a record.

“If I’m hiring somebody to watch my kid, or watch my money or to do maintenance on my house, I want to know whether that individual has been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor, and I think most people would agree,” Stec said. To seal such records automatically a few years after the individual has completed the court-imposed sentence, Stec added, “amounts to a slap in the face to everyone who bothers to obey the law.”

Bill supporters say the measure will help reduce recidivism and benefit the state economy when those with criminal histories become gainfully employed.

Offenders listed on the state Sexual Offender Registry would not qualify for having their records sealed.

Citing demographic data indicating that nearly half of all children have at least one parent with a criminal record, they also maintain the legislation will be beneficial to families.

Sen. Peter Oberacker, R-Otsego County, a member of the Senate finance committee, said he plans to vote against the measure, explaining keeping conviction records open helps employers make prudent hiring choices.

“If I can look back and see that somebody served time for an embezzlement conviction, am I going to want to hire this individual to take care of my books?” Oberacker said.

A Democratic lawmaker, Assemblyman Billy Jones of Plattsburgh, said he opposes the new bill. “It needs a lot of work,” he said.

The District Attorneys Association of New York State is also not on board yet, signaling it will push for modifications.

For instance, the bill requires a defendant have no pending criminal cases in New York before prior convictions are sealed.

But that “does not take into account the fact that someone could have numerous cases pending in other states or in the federal system,” noted J. Anthony Jordan, president of the association and the Washington County district attorney.

Jordan said the association hopes to work with the legislation’s sponsors to come up with changes that allow individuals with criminal histories to get second chances in jobs, housing and education without compromising public safety or stop law enforcement from accessing the records.

The legislator who has championed the bill in the upper chamber is Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn. “This is an economic, social and moral imperative, and it can’t wait,” Myrie said in a tweet.

Assembly GOP Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, said while he agrees second chances are important, “people have the right to make informed decisions.”

“There are radical Democrats in Albany who’d like to pretend that criminal histories should be unilaterally erased,” Barclay said. “But that does nothing to promote safety in our communities.”

Supporters said Clean Slate bills have passed in Utah, Connecticut, California and Michigan and remain under consideration in several other states.


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