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NY could automatically seal criminal records, reform parole

June 10, 2021 Marina Villeneuve, Associated Press
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New Yorkers would have their criminal records automatically sealed and avoid jail time for non-violent parole violations under bills that moved through the state Legislature Thursday.

The state Senate and Assembly passed the Less is More Act as state lawmakers wrapped up the end of the legislative session. The act would largely eliminate the practice of incarcerating people for technical parole violations in New York.

Legislative leaders will decide when to send the bill to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who would have 10 days to sign or veto it.

The bill, sponsored by Senior Assistant Majority Leader Brian Benjamin, a Democratic state senator whose district includes most of central Harlem, has exceptions for parole violations that could endanger public safety, including if someone incarcerated for driving under the influence then went out driving.

People could also receive “earned time credits” to encourage positive behavior, and would have the right to counsel during the parole revocation process.

“This legislation recognizes that people on parole who have committed no new crimes should be with their communities and families, not behind bars for missing an appointment,” New York Civil Liberties Union policy counsel Jared Trujillo said.

New York would also automatically seal the records of many criminal convictions at least three years from sentencing for a misdemeanor, or seven years for a felony, under an amended bill that state lawmakers were expected to pass Thursday.

The law wouldn’t apply to sex offenses, or for people who are currently under parole or probation or facing a pending criminal charge. Courts, or anyone required to run fingerprint-based criminal history checks, could access the records in certain scenarios.

Lawmakers removed an original provision of the Clean Slate Act, sponsored by Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat from Brooklyn, that would have also eventually expunged the records from an individual’s criminal history.

Republicans, who are a minority in the state Legislature, have blasted Democrats for focusing more on perpetrators of crimes than victims.

Meanwhile, some criminal justice advocacy groups criticized the Democratic-led Legislature for failing to pass more bills to help people denied parole.

The Assembly had no plans Thursday to pass a bill to direct the state parole board to start evaluating whether individual prisoners over the age of 55 would pose a “significant public safety risk” if released. Another bill that appeared unlikely to pass would require the board to parole prisoners once their minimum period of incarceration is up, unless there’s a “clearly articulated current public safety risk.”

“You’re playing with too many people’s lives and these people have families that they need to be reunited with,” said Donna Robinson, 65, of Buffalo, who protested outside the statehouse Thursday. She said the reforms could have helped give a second chance to her 45-year-old daughter Al-Shariyfa Robinson, who received 15 years to life after confessing to setting a boarding house on fire in 2015. Two people died in the fire.

A look at other bills that lawmakers have considered:

LOWERING AGE OF JUVENILE DELINQUENCY: The state Assembly on Thursday passed a bill to end the arrest and prosecution of kids below the age of 12, except in homicide cases. The bill passed the Senate earlier this week. Under state law, children can be charged as juvenile delinquents as young as age 7. In 2019, police arrested over 800 largely Black or Hispanic elementary school children in New York City ages 12 and younger, according to city data. Republicans argued Thursday that only a handful of those children end up detained.

DECRIMINALIZING SYRINGES, NEEDLES: New York would repeal criminal penalties for possessing needles and syringes under a bill that passed the Senate Monday but hadn’t come up for a vote in the Assembly as of Thursday. Pharmacies could also provide syringes without facing the current limit of 10 syringes.

ANTI-HARASSMENT BILLS: The Assembly had no plans Thursday to take up several bills that passed in the Senate to extend the statute of limitations for workplace harassment to five years and ensure all state employees are protected from harassment and retaliation. Several former Assembly employees who were sexually harassed claim the Assembly is blocking the bill to protect its own interests. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said Thursday that lawmakers will keep reviewing whether current harassment laws are working.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee has launched an investigation into whether there are grounds to impeach Cuomo over multiple allegations — including that he groped a current female aide and sexually harassed multiple employees. The governor denies he did anything wrong.

GRAND JURY SECRECY: A bill to allow the release of some grand jury material has passed the Assembly but wasn’t on track for a Senate vote as of Thursday. Typically, when there’s no grand jury indictment, information about the proceedings often remains secret. Under the bill, courts could release some details when the public is aware of the grand jury proceedings and the suspect’s identity.

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