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Bill in state legislature would erase some lingering criminal records

New York State Senate

The New York State Senate held a hearing last week on a measure that would seal conviction records for up to 2 million New Yorkers who have committed serious crimes and served time in prison for them.

Senators heard from people who were formerly imprisoned or on probation who said the barriers to housing and employment they encounter because of their convictions have led to a form of “perpetual punishment."

Michael Smith, who testified at the hearing, was released from prison in 2004. Though he said he faced obstacles, he got a job at a high school, where he counseled young people on how to make good choices and stay out of trouble.

Smith said everyone at the school knew about his past, but when a new requirement that employees be fingerprinted was put into place in 2017, he was told that he was no longer eligible to work in a school.  

“All they saw was my record,” Smith said. “I realized that I was serving a life sentence. I was given a life sentence of perpetual punishment.”

Melinda Agnew was convicted 22 years ago of aggravated assault with a weapon, a misdemeanor. She said she served her sentence, spent time in a halfway house where she received counseling, and went on to get her bachelor’s degree and become a mother. She said she is now working toward a master’s degree but has struggled to find employment.

“I’ve been denied a lot of jobs because of my criminal background,” Agnew said. “I’ve been denied a lot of housing throughout the years because of my criminal background.”

Senate sponsor Zellnor Myrie said Smith, Agnew and others deserve a second chance at employment and housing. He said there are also economic losses that affect Black and brown communities, where residents have been disproportionately incarcerated.

“We know that individuals with convictions lose hundreds of thousands of dollars throughout their lifetime, simply because they are denied on their conviction record,” Myrie said. “We leave billions of dollars on the table, because we shut people out of our economy.”

The bill would establish a two-step process of first automatically sealing, and later automatically expunging, conviction records once a person has served their sentence.

The process is similar to provisions in the recently passed law legalizing marijuana in New York, where some with past convictions for cannabis sale or possession will see their records erased.

Albany County District Attorney David Soares, a past president of the state’s District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, testified along with a panel of other DAs. He said instead of basing the expungement provision on the marijuana law, he’d rather see it modeled after the 2017 Raise the Age law, which erased some criminal records of 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of crimes.

Soares said some offenses are too serious to be automatically expunged.

“Violent criminals, sex offenders are people that I don’t believe should qualify for expungement or sealing,” said Soares, who added that he does believe there should be options to expunge the records of people with repeated lower-level convictions.

Soares said some people with multiple convictions were addicted to drugs, and when they went into recovery, their criminal offenses also ended.

Other DAs said certain offenses, including repeated domestic violence or crimes against children or vulnerable adults, should also be ineligible for automatic expungement.

Supporters said they hope they can complete work on the legislation before the session ends in June.

Michigan, Pennsylvania and Utah have adopted similar laws, though in some of those states, those with criminal convictions have to petition for their records to be permanently expunged.

Opponents include some Republicans in the Legislature. In a statement, Senator Minority Leader Rob Ortt said that without changes, the legislation “would pose a serious threat to public safety” and contribute to a growing crime rate in New York.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.