New York State

Zellnor Myrie wants to give NY a clean slate

The state Senator spoke to City & State about why he’s pushing to automatically seal and expunge the records of formerly incarcerated individuals.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie

State Senator Zellnor Myrie NY Senate Photo

Progressive legislators are hoping to pass a new piece of criminal justice reform legislation by the end of this legislative session that they hope will not only aid formerly incarcerated people but the state’s bruised economy as well. 

The Clean Slate bill, sponsored by state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assembly Member Catalina Cruz, seeks to automatically seal and expunge records automatically, after a formerly incarcerated individual’s time has been served and their probation has ended. The bill is a part of an overarching criminal justice policy plan called the Justice Roadmap, which is backed by 18 state Senators and Assembly members. 

People who have been incarcerated often have a difficult time securing work and housing, as well as being accepted into higher education programs. “When you have paid your dues to society, and you come out, and you want to get a job, and you want to be able to have a roof over your head, and you can’t even do that, that’s not living,” Cruz said during an online rally before a hearing on this bill earlier this month.

A study published by the Harvard Law Review in 2020, revealed that the passage of a similar law in Michigan, that expunged individuals’ records, led to a 20% increase in convicted people’s income and an 11% employment increase for convicted people.The passing of this legislation would also be a huge racial justice win, as 80% of formerly incarcerated people are either Black or Latino.

Some Republican lawmakers have expressed concerns that making this process automatic would be shielding valuable information from law enforcement or employers that they feel have a right to know if someone has been incarcerated for a violent crime. “If passed, this legislation would pose a serious threat to public safety. Daycare providers would have no way to ensure the people they hire to look after your children are not violent criminals,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said in a statement earlier this month.

Myrie spoke to City & State about what the Clean Slate bill has to offer formerly incarcerated individuals as well as the rest of the state, and addressed the current criticism of the bill.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So, can you tell me about the Clean Slate bill and how sealing and expunging someone’s record would work if this legislation is passed?

The principle behind this bill is that individuals should not be adversely affected for the rest of their lives for one of their worst moments. We have 2.3 million New Yorkers with conviction records that prevent them from participating in our economy, from getting housing and educational opportunities. They’re living with this burden even after they have served all of their time and have paid all of their dues to society. And so what automatic sealing and expungement does is it removes that burden and that barrier to these opportunities and it would work in a two step process. The first is automatically sealing (one’s record) either one year or three years after the end of someone serving their time. For misdemeanors it’s one year and for felonies it’s three years. And then at five years for misdemeanors, and seven years for certain felonies, it (records) would be automatically expunged. 

The automatic nature of this is incredibly important. We do have a (record) sealing application process in our criminal procedure law right now. We passed that in 2017 as part of the “raise the age” legislation but only .5% of New Yorkers who are eligible for sealing have taken advantage of it. That application process has proven to be too onerous for people to take advantage of it.

How does one go about sealing their records currently? 

It’s a complicated process. You first have to figure out what's in your record to begin with. And that in and of itself is a difficult process because the application only allows for sealing for certain convictions. Just the sort of entry level research that you have to do to obtain what is on your record is a barrier. But even if you've got past that point, then you have to figure out, “Well, how do I apply? Where do I go? Who do I speak to?” 

And if you're an individual who was justice-involved, the last time that you have interacted with the legal system has not been an experience that you enjoyed. In many instances, it is triggering for you to re-engage with this judicial system. Even if you got past knowing what's on your record, the mere prospect of having to go into a court or having to get a lawyer, to clear the record is a daunting one.

How does the Clean Slate bill help not only the individuals who have completed their sentences but the state as a whole?

The bill is the morally right thing to do. If we are truly a society about rehabilitation and redemption, this is the right thing to do. But it's not just the morally right thing to do. This is about a true economic recovery for the entire state. We can't say that we're trying to bounce back from COVID-19, and we want more people to work, and we want to bring more people into the business ecosystem but for the 2.3 million New Yorkers with conviction records say, “Thanks, but no, thanks.” This is a jobs bill. This is a housing bill. This is an education bill. 

Republican Assembly Leader William Barclay and state Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt have both criticized the bill for concealing what they consider to be valuable information to employers and landlords, suggesting not doing so could make communities less safe. What are your thoughts on this perspective?

I say this is a public safety bill as well. 

If you're an individual that has had a conviction record but you have served your time, you've paid your dues to society. If you have not committed another crime – that is a prerequisite in this bill – you've been a committed member of the community, not committing offenses. You've already served your time but you have this record that is preventing you from getting housing, it's preventing you from getting a decent job, it's preventing you from getting financial aid for school, you are going to turn, in some cases, to what you know and to some of the worst elements in our community. 

I'd also note that there are some exceptions in this bill, that would still grant access, in many instances, to the records for particularly sensitive industries, where the state has deemed it a requirement for you to be fingerprinted. For instance, if you are applying for a job in a school, you have to be fingerprinted. This bill allows for access to those records.

What are other ways that the state could help rehabilitate convicted individuals beyond this legislation?

Well, I think it's important that once people leave incarceration, and they're no longer under supervision, that they know the full array of re-entry services that are available to them. 

Unfortunately, what ends up happening many times is people are released from prison or are no longer under parole or probation and the state says, “Good luck being a successful member of the community.” So I think providing people with the array of services, the things that they have access to, is a really important thing for the state to do and a posture that the Department of Corrections should be adopting.