The state Senate held a hearing this 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 New Yorkers who were formerly imprisoned or on probation, who say they face barriers to housing and employment because of their convictions, have led to a form of “perpetual punishment.”
Michael Smith was released from prison in 2004, and, though he says 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, who testified at the hearing, says 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 longer eligible to work in a school, and had to leave the job.
“All they saw was my record,” said Smith. “At that very moment, 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 says she served her sentence, spent time in a half-way house where she received counseling, and went on to get her bachelor’s degree and become a mother. Agnew says 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 says Smith, Agnew and others deserve a second chance at employment and housing. The Brooklyn Democrat says 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 life time, 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 those records erased.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares, a past president of the state’s District Attorney’s Association of the State of New York, testified along with a panel of other DAs. The Democrat says instead of basing the expungement provision on the marijuana law, he’d rather see it modelled after the 2017 Raise the Age law, which erased some criminal records of 16 and 17-year-olds convicted of crimes. Soares says 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 said, he does believe there should be options to expunge the records of people with repeated lower level convictions.
Soares says some with multiple convictions were addicted to drugs, and when they recovered from their addiction, their criminal offenses also ended.
Other DAs say crimes including repeated domestic violence or crimes against children or vulnerable adults should also be ineligible for automatic expungement.
Supporters say 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, Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt says without changes, the legislation “would pose a serious threat to public safety,” and contribute to a growing crime rate in New York over the past two years.