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Clean Slate Supporters Say Measure Offers Second Chance

The New York State Capitol
Jackie Orchard

As the New York State legislative session draws to a close, lawmakers are considering several criminal justice changes, including what’s known as clean slate legislation. It would expunge some criminal records for those who have already served their time in prison. Supporters of the clean slate legislation, who held rallies in cities across the state, say lingering criminal records even after a person has served their time, can lead to a lifetime of blocked opportunities, including discrimination in housing and employment. Advocates who were convicted of crimes and released from prison say it can leave them in a state of “perpetual punishment.”  

Since Democrats took over the state legislature in 2019, a number of criminal justice changes have been approved, including bail reform. While many of them were opposed by law enforcement groups, clean slate has the backing of some organizations that include police. Wayne Harris, a former deputy police chief in Rochester, is part of the group Law Enforcement Action Partnership, which includes prosecutors, judges, corrections officers, and other law enforcement officials who are working for reform. He has testified at recent legislative hearings on criminal justice reform.  

Harris says former prisoners who have served their sentence and have been rehabilitated need to be welcomed back into society.  

“Criminal records often becomes a hindrance to individuals,” said Harris, who says it hampers efforts to get a mortgage, finish an education, or open a bank account. 

“For those individuals who have served their time and qualify based on the language in the legislation, I think it’s appropriate to give them another opportunity to be productive in society,” he said.   

Harris says the lingering criminal records can have a generational impact, and disadvantage the children of former prisoners. 

Harris, who retired from the police force after 30 years, says he saw numerous examples of criminal offenders who would have benefited from a second chance, including a teenage burglar that he met early on in his career. 

“I literally saw this young man running down the street and carrying a television set at one point,” Harris said. “As he grew and became an adult because of his incarceration and re-incarceration and ultimate criminal record it was very difficult for him to rise above the challenges that that creates for a person.”

He says people need to be offered hope that they can change their lives.  

District attorneys in New York also back parts of the proposed legislation. Erie County DA John Flynn, who is a vice president with the state’s District Attorney’s association, says he backs the concept of erasing some criminal records to help a former inmate remake their life. 

“I philosophically agree that if people have done their time, that they should not be penalized when they return to society,” Flynn said. “I want prisoners to be able to get housing, to be able to get jobs, to be able to get back on their feet.”

But DA Flynn says he does not want the records of serious violent felonies, like murder, rape or child abuse to be hidden from prosecutors or judges. He says they need to be able to take into account a defendant’s prior criminal history when prosecuting a case and deciding on an appropriate punishment.  

“We would not even be able to look and find out what a person does in the past,” said Flynn. “Which has some consequences when we’re trying to figure out if someone is a repeat offender on a current or future charge.”  

A letter from the DA’s Association to the bill’s sponsors says that domestic violence and DWI cases often involve repeat offenders.  

The district attorneys would like to see the bill amended to more closely resemble Michigan’s clean slate law. It allows law enforcement to keep “nonpublic” records of past convictions.  

The measure has been advancing through Senate and Assembly committees. Lawmakers have until June 10, the scheduled end of the session to decide whether to put it on the floor for a vote.

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