Second chances in New York: Clean Slate Act to wipe millions of criminal records

November 17, 2023 Robert Abruzzese, Courthouse Editor
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signing the Clean Slate Act at the Brooklyn Museum.Photo: Susan Watts/Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
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New York State took a significant step towards criminal justice reform on Thursday with the signing of the “Clean Slate Act” by Gov. Kathy Hochul. 

This groundbreaking legislation, hailed as a crucial step towards restorative justice, is designed to automatically seal millions of criminal convictions, fundamentally changing the landscape for many New Yorkers with past convictions.

“With the signing of this law, it adds to our momentum to get people back to work, give them those opportunities,” Hochul said. “And all those people who’ve been convicted are not able to find someone who will believe in them again, help lift them up, give them a home, independence again, have the dignity of a job, it means everything to people.”

The Clean Slate Act aims to create new opportunities for individuals who have served their time, addressing the long-term consequences that criminal records can have on employment, housing, and education prospects. 

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This initiative is seen as a pivotal move in breaking the vicious cycle of incarceration and recidivism, offering a second chance to those who have been marginalized by their criminal history.

Under the provisions of the Clean Slate Act, criminal convictions in NYS will be automatically sealed from public view after the individual completes a waiting period post-incarceration. This period is set at three years for misdemeanor convictions and eight years for felonies. 

The sealing of these records means that they will be effectively hidden from the public, including potential employers and housing providers, thereby reducing the risk of discrimination based on past criminal history.

The law excludes serious crimes such as sex offenses and most Class A felonies, including murder and arson. This exclusion is part of an effort to balance the act of giving second chances with the need to maintain public safety and accountability for severe crimes. 

The law also allows certain state, local and federal agencies, such as those processing firearms licenses and the Department of Motor Vehicles, to access these sealed records in specific circumstances. Schools, police agencies, and facilities dealing with vulnerable groups will also have access to sealed convictions for employment purposes.

Supporters of the Clean Slate Act, including Attorney General Letitia James and OCA Chief Administrative Judge Joseph Zayas, emphasize the law’s potential to foster fairer and more equitable justice systems, rebuild families, and support community development. James, in her statement, underscored the importance of giving a second chance to those who have reformed, highlighting the law’s role in building stronger families and communities. 

“The millions of New Yorkers who have paid their dues and are ready to rebuild their lives deserve a second chance,” Attorney General James said. “The Clean Slate Act will help ensure our justice system is fairer and more equitable, and help build stronger families and communities by making it easier for formerly incarcerated New Yorkers to find stable housing, good-paying jobs, and quality education.”

OCA Chief Administrative Judge Joseph Zayas, supporting the Clean Slate Act, said that it is fully consistent with the judiciary’s ongoing efforts to facilitate the reintegration of individuals with conviction histories back into the community.<br>Photo: Robert Abruzzese/Brooklyn Eagle
OCA Chief Administrative Judge Joseph Zayas, supporting the Clean Slate Act, said that it is fully consistent with the judiciary’s ongoing efforts to facilitate the reintegration of individuals with conviction histories back into the community.
Photo: Robert Abruzzese/Brooklyn Eagle

Justice Zayas echoed these sentiments, recognizing the law as a progressive step consistent with the judiciary’s ongoing efforts to reintegrate individuals with conviction histories into society.

“This legislation is fully consistent with the judiciary’s ongoing efforts to facilitate the reintegration of individuals with conviction histories, and address the consequences of systemic injustices,” said Justice Zayas. “We thank the governor and legislature for their commitment to provide the funding that the courts need for this initiative, and look forward to working with them to ensure that the Clean Slate law is successfully implemented on time.”

Despite the law’s noble intentions, it has faced criticism and opposition, particularly from Republican lawmakers and law enforcement organizations. They argue that the law is too broad and raises concerns about public safety and the capacity of the state court system to implement it effectively. Critics also worry that the law might seal records of violent offenses, potentially endangering public safety.

The Clean Slate Act has significant implications for Brooklyn’s business community, according to Randy Peers, CEO & president of the local Chamber of Commerce, who has been a vocal advocate for the law. 

The act is expected to alleviate the hiring challenges faced by small businesses in Brooklyn by expanding the pool of potential employees, Peers explained.

“Gov. Hochul recognizes how the Clean Slate Act will open so many more opportunities for both business owners and the job-seekers who coveted these jobs, but were shut out for far too long,” Peers said. “Everywhere I go in Brooklyn small businesses are struggling to find employees to fill job openings, and this will help to greatly expand the talent pool. The Clean Slate Act is about economic justice, development and helping New York’s workforce develop and grow.”

The Legal Aid Society has expressed deep appreciation for Gov. Hochul’s enactment of the Clean Slate Act, Legal Aid called it a significant piece of legislation that promises to automatically seal the conviction records of over 2.3 million New Yorkers. 

Legal Aid claims that this law particularly impacts individuals from low-income communities of color, who have historically been disproportionately affected by the long-term consequences of criminal convictions. The sealing of these records is seen as a pivotal change, potentially alleviating barriers faced in securing employment, housing, education, and other essential services due to a criminal record.

Tina Luongo, chief attorney of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, heralded the signing as a transformative moment for millions in New York. 

“This is a moment for the millions of New Yorkers who have been forced to suffer under the cloud of a criminal conviction that has long impeded their ability to secure employment, housing, educational opportunities, benefits and other critical needs,” said Luongo. “With the stroke of a pen, Governor Kathy Hochul has ended this nightmare and transformed the lives of so many of our clients and their families for the better.”

Legal Aid also commended the efforts of bill sponsors state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assembly Member Catalina Cruz, acknowledging their roles in championing the Clean Slate initiative and Gov. Hochul.

The law is set to take effect one year after its signing, with the New York State Office of Court Administration having up to three years to seal eligible conviction records.


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