Economic justice

Why New York’s Clean Slate Act is essential for economic justice

The New York legislature adjourned in June without passing the Clean Slate Act, a bill that would have sealed the criminal records of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, expanding access to good jobs and safe housing. With an estimated 8.7 million New Yorkers with criminal records, the law would have provided a significant boost to the state’s economy and could have provided much-needed reprieve for people whose lives remain impacted by convictions long after their term ends. sadness. When lawmakers meet again in January, this bill should be a priority.

In 2020, more than 18,000 people in New York and more than half a million people in the United States left prison to face a dizzying array of barriers preventing them from accessing housing, education and even employment. This results in limited economic opportunities, which keeps many people trapped in poverty. Research from the Brennan Center shows that time spent in prison can cut a person’s annual income by about half. Combined with the effects of other types of criminal justice involvement, incarceration costs our communities, and the economy, hundreds of billions of dollars every year. One study estimates that in New York City, lost income due to underemployment among people with criminal records reaches $7.1 billion annually. These hardships are the result of policies that lead to an individual’s criminal history haunting them for years after release, often creating a “silent life sentence”.

One solution to this problem is to limit who can access a criminal record, and when. This process, called “sealing” or “erasing” a criminal record (depending on the criminal record restriction), has been adopted in several states, with promising results. For example, an analysis of Michigan’s Clearance of Records Act showed that salaries increased by more than 20% on average after disbarment.

But access to sealing records remains limited in many jurisdictions, including New York. Here, the process of sealing a conviction record requires an application and can be costly. Also, many eligible people are unaware that sealing is an option. As a result, less than 0.1% of those eligible have successfully sealed a case under the existing petition-based system. The Clean Slate Act would make record sealing much more accessible by automating the process – criminal records would be sealed after a set period of time without the need to go to court or pay legal fees. According to one estimate, it could help up to 1.4 million people.

Unfortunately, this legislation has been blocked twice. In 2021, lawmakers reached an agreement to pass the Clean Slate Act, but were unable to vote due to a drafting error. While lawmakers could have passed the bill in a special session or with a directive from the governor, neither came to fruition. In 2022, Governor Kathy Hochul prioritized a version of the legislation in her budget proposal — a strong show of support. The senate passed it, but in the last days of the legislative session, the assembly neglected to pass the legislation.

Some lawmakers may have been wary of the bill’s impact on public safety, but there’s every reason to believe the Clean Slate Act would make our communities safer. The R Street Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank, pointed out that the best available research on case closure laws, again focusing on Michigan, showed very low recidivism rates among people whose records were sealed. And the Clean Slate Act has strong built-in protections to ensure public safety. People only become eligible for the sealing of records after several years – three years for a misdemeanor and seven years for a felony. Recidivism after so many years out of prison is rare, and the waiting period resets after any intermediate offense. Crucially, people must also complete parole or post-release supervision before becoming eligible.

In addition, the legislation has undergone several rounds of revisions to address public safety concerns. In 2021, it was revised to clarify that law enforcement would retain access to sealed records in certain cases. And the most recent version of the bill included strong protections for employers, ensuring companies would not be liable for hiring someone with a sealed criminal record. Employers and agencies required by federal or state law to perform “fingerprint-based” background checks on applicants would also remain able to view sealed records, incorporating existing protections for work domains. sensitive. Notably, major employers in the state like Verizon and JPMorgan Chase have thrown their support behind the legislation, as has the Business Council of New York.

Those released from incarceration are shadowed by the criminal justice system years after serving their sentence due to the lasting collateral consequences of a criminal record. This perpetual punishment is both harmful and unnecessary. The automatic erasure of records provides formerly incarcerated individuals with a safe way to fully reintegrate into the community once their sentence and required waiting times have passed.

The Clean Slate Act would provide a way to help the economy, allow individuals to participate in their communities, and improve public safety — especially given the carefully negotiated safeguards included in its latest incarnation. Although the bill did not reach the governor’s desk this session, Albany leaders are expected to make it a priority in the next session.