America

New York Will Give a ‘Clean Slate’ to Formerly Incarcerated People

Roughly two million people convicted of crimes in New York may be eligible to have their records sealed as part of a broad criminal justice initiative that will be signed into law on Thursday by Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Under the so-called Clean Slate Act, people who complete their sentences and remain out of trouble for a set period — three years for misdemeanors, eight for eligible felonies — will have their convictions sealed. The most serious crimes, including sex crimes, murder and most other class A felonies, will not be eligible for automatic sealing.

New York will become one of a dozen states with such legislation, which is aimed at interrupting the cycle of recidivism by allowing formerly incarcerated people to access jobs and housing.

The law will go into effect a year from now, though it will take three more years to clear the records of those currently waiting.

Ms. Hochul said that she was proud to sign the legislation, which she said would provide economic opportunities while protecting public safety.

“The best crime-fighting tool is a good-paying job,” she said.

The bill’s signing is a victory for criminal justice advocates who spent years lobbying stakeholders on behalf of the measure. By the time it passed New York’s Democrat-dominated Legislature earlier this year, it boasted an impressive coalition of business, labor, government and advocacy groups who preached of its economic, moral and public safety benefits.

Indeed, one of the biggest ostensible hurdles was Ms. Hochul herself, who over her two years in power has split with progressives over some criminal justice measures, citing public safety concerns.

While Ms. Hochul was supportive of the general concept of the initiative, and included a scaled-back version in her legislative agenda last year, she expressed concern over the scope of the initial bill.

Ultimately, the governor was able to extract concessions from its sponsors before its passage, including an extended waiting period and liability protections for businesses that hire people who have criminal records. Records will remain visible to law enforcement and court personnel, as well as certain sensitive employers.

Unlike previous iterations of the bill, the final version makes all class A felonies, except those related to drug possession, ineligible for sealing.

The concessions helped to quiet opposition, including from law enforcement groups. While the major sheriffs’, police and prosecutors’ associations have not backed the measure, they have refrained from publicly criticizing it.

An analysis from the Division of Criminal Justice Services showed that roughly 1 million felonies and up to 4 million misdemeanor convictions would be eligible for sealing.

Employers can be hesitant to hire someone with a criminal record — a bias that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said depresses the economy, amounting to $78 billion to $87 billion in lost gross domestic product.

The impact on people and their families is more direct: New Yorkers living with criminal records miss out on roughly $2.4 billion in wages annually, according to a report from the New York City comptroller, Brad Lander. Nearly 80 percent of them are nonwhite.

Ismael Cruz served nine and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter. After he got out, he said he struggled to find employment — once losing a job he had already gotten because of a late-arriving background check.

Today he works as a community organizer for the Center for Community Alternatives, a group that pushes for criminal justice reform, including Clean Slate. Mr. Cruz said he was “ecstatic” about the law’s passage, which he says will lift the burden for him and others.

He knows the law will take several years to go into effect, but he hopes its passage itself could encourage employers to start hiring people now — regardless of their records.

“I’m hoping that the law gets signed, that people will say, ‘You know what, let’s change it now,’” he said. “Cause if we wait for three years, it’s still three years we can’t get a job.”

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JP Morgan Chase, said he was “thrilled” Ms. Hochul was signing the bill, citing not only New York’s many open jobs, but also the positive impact those jobs would have on the people who filled them.

“Jobs bring dignity, jobs bring household formation, jobs bring lower crime,” Mr. Dimon, one of the most powerful proponents of second-chance legislation in the country, said in an interview. “ Jobs lift up people.”

Many Republicans still oppose the bill because it may seal records that they believe ought to remain public. They point to the existing process for sealing records, in which a judge approves each request.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, who represents the Niagara Falls area, said he was disappointed that Ms. Hochul was signing the Clean Slate Act, and skeptical of the projected economic benefits.

“I do not think this is going to solve the employee shortage that our employers are seeing here,” he said.

“We continue to pass legislation like this that is really geared toward those who have broken the law, the criminal class, and not those who might be victims,” he lamented.

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