For Michael “Zaki” Smith, expunging the criminal records of more than 2 million people through a “Clean Slate” law would represent a new beginning for New York communities most impacted by the criminal justice system.
During a Feb. 25 virtual press conference, Smith said the proposed legislation could have wide-ranging implications by restoring dignity, reducing recidivism and improving people's financial well-being. He was joined by community groups, lawmakers, and criminal justice reform advocates as they launched the "Clean Slate Campaign" to push for the bill's passing.
“This bill is long past due. We have suffered enough,” said Smith, policy entrepreneur for Next100, a think tank that promotes progressives policies.
If it succeeds in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, “Clean Slate”—language adopted by other states proposing similar policies—would eventually expunge the records of eligible residents, which would happen automatically. Advocates say it would open people up to better professional opportunities and make it easier for them to find housing.
New York Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, a Queens Democrat who is sponsoring the bill in her chamber, described it as a two-pronged approach. First, it would seal criminal records for the purposes of employment and housing—which would take effect one year after release for a misdemeanor and three years for certain felonies. Misdemeanor and felony records would then automatically be expunged after five and seven years, respectively. She noted that people who commit more serious crimes would be ineligible.
Cruz called it “life-saving and life-changing legislation” ending a “vicious cycle” that continues to punish people long after they’ve served their sentence.
Kandra Clark, vice president of strategy at nonprofit Exodus Transitional Community, which supports youth and adults impacted by the justice system, said “housing has presented the biggest barrier” due to her criminal record. After leaving prison, it took her five years to get a studio apartment and nine years to move into a one bedroom.
“When we say that it’s never-ending, it doesn’t matter how many decades you’ve been home,” she said, noting that punishment continues long after incarceration.
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Proponents of such laws hope economic conditions improve for people, without the albatross of a criminal record hanging over them.
A report released last year by the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice found that criminal justice-involved people earn “significantly less” throughout their life. Those who served time in prison earn “nearly half a million dollars less over their careers than they might have otherwise,” the report said, adding: “These losses are borne disproportionately by people already living in poverty, and they help perpetuate it.”
A widely cited study by the University of Michigan Law School found that expungement plays a role in people gaining better-paying jobs and reducing recidivism.
Criminal justice reform has been a consistent theme in New York politics in recent years, which has seen changes to the bail system (which were then rolled back), the repeal of a statute known as 50-a that prohibited the release of police disciplinary records, and the criminalization of chokeholds by law enforcement—the latter named after Eric Garner, an unarmed African American strangled to death by an NYPD officer in 2014, whose cries of "I Can't Breathe!" reverberate today.
While expungement will represent the latest test for the reform movement, similar "Clean Slate" laws have garnered bipartisan support in the three states where they've been enacted: Michigan, Utah and Pennsylvania.
The proposal comes four years after the New York State Legislature passed a law meant to seal criminal records, but in the first two years since its implementation only a small percentage of the 600,000 eligible New Yorkers benefited.