Criminal Justice

Undaunted by bail backlash, progressives push for Clean Slate bill in Albany

Democrats have to decide between dueling versions of the legislation as the April 1 state budget deadline approaches.

Assembly Member Catalina Cruz of Queens, who sponsored the Clean Slate bill.

Assembly Member Catalina Cruz of Queens, who sponsored the Clean Slate bill. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Political momentum has seemingly been on the side of the anti-bail reform crowd ever since Republicans scored several victories in local races in November after campaigning hard on the issue. But progressives are nonetheless remaining on the legislative offensive as the 2022 elections loom. 

Activists are making a big push to change parole laws, and a bill that would make it easier to overturn wrongful convictions got some attention Tuesday at the Capitol. One bill that appears particularly likely to pass in the upcoming weeks aims to seal criminal records for people who finish their sentences.

Gov. Kathy Hochul included a so-called Clean Slate bill in her proposed state budget despite the ongoing backlash to bail reform, but Democratic lawmakers and activists showed Tuesday that they are not giving up the fight for a version of the legislation, which nearly passed the Legislature last year, that would be more aggressive in sealing records more quickly. 

The one-house budgets expected to pass the state Senate and Assembly next week offer progressives a chance to show they aren’t intimidated by the GOP’s messaging on criminal justice reforms as an April 1 state budget deadline approaches.

Messaging could help Clean Slate avoid the types of controversy that have plagued other progressive efforts like bail reform. “This is not a criminal justice reform bill,” Assembly Member Catalina Cruz of Queens, who sponsored the bill, told City & State. “This is an antipoverty bill.” Formerly incarcerated people would need to finish their prison sentences and any post-release supervision before they could have their records sealed, which would smooth the way for them to apply for jobs and housing. “It just baffles my mind why we don't want to ensure that people are permitted to work,” state Sen. Jamaal Bailey, who chairs the Bronx Democratic Party, said at a Tuesday virtual press conference in support of the bill. 

The differences between the bill sponsored by Cruz and the one proposed by Hochul come down to when people would become eligible to have their conviction sealed. They could apply as soon as their sentences end under the version backed by lawmakers while Hochul would make them wait until the end of the maximum sentence imposed by a judge. This would amount to several more years in many cases, City & State reported in January. 

Suburban moderates are few on the list of Democratic lawmakers who have signed onto the bill first proposed in 2020, but New York City Mayor Eric Adams expressed his support for the legislation during his budget testimony before state legislators, though it remains unclear which of the dueling proposals he prefers. The version of the bill supported by legislators was included in the “People’s Budget” backed by the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, whose members include Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andre Stewart-Cousins. Labor groups also recently announced their support for that version of the bill. 

The fate of the bill hinges on the willingness of legislators and the governor to compromise on the details. “We're working with the governor's office to make sure that they see that the language of need is the language that we draft,” Cruz said at the virtual press conference. The governor has demonstrated her willingness to compromise with legislators on a litany of issues, including her recently-spiked budget proposal on expanding the use of granny flats across the state. “She will continue working with the Legislature to hammer out an agreement on the Clean Slate Act that helps New Yorkers transform their lives post-incarceration,” Hochul spokesperson Avi Small said in an email. There is a chance that negotiations on Clean Slate could continue outside the budget process if activists push legislators to resist any compromise that Hochul might offer.

Clean Slate is hardly the only proposal that will test the progressive mood in Albany on the matter of changing how the state deals with people who get caught up in the criminal justice system. The People’s Budget includes a list of criminal justice reforms that progressives are eager to include in the one-house budget while moderates and Republicans are hoping to restrain them as much as possible before a final state budget gets approved around the beginning of April. 

The bail backlash continues, but that is not stopping Democrats from championing their vision for public safety in Albany. “This is about regular everyday people who have made mistakes, who have paid for them,” Cruz said at the Tuesday press conference. “Give people an opportunity to have a job, to rebuild their lives, to live safely so that all these arguments of recidivism and what happens when people commit crimes again can go out the window.”