Advocates and people who want to see old criminal records sealed are hopeful the Clean Slate bill will garner fresh support this legislative session, but the path to passing the bill may not be so easy.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assembly Member Catalina Cruz, would seal the criminal records of many people convicted of certain felonies or misdemeanors (not including sex offenses) once they became eligible – three years after the imposed sentencing for misdemeanor crimes and seven years for felonies – presuming they refrain from committing additional crimes. While the bill has been popular among progressive lawmakers since it was first introduced in 2020, it has never passed both chambers. Last year, there was optimism after Gov. Kathy Hochul explicitly mentioned the bill in her State of the State address. The state Senate passed the bill last session, but the bill did not progress in the Assembly.
This year, after a bruising reelection battle, Hochul did not mention Clean Slate in her State of the State address. And a change in the makeup of a key Assembly committee may not be particularly favorable in getting the bill passed this time around. After Democrats lost a few Assembly seats to Republicans in the last election, the Republican conference also gained a seat in the Codes Committee, which deals with criminal justice issues.
Supporters say the bill will allow people who have served their time to be able to access job and housing opportunities; while critics argue a person’s criminal history should be on the record to prevent them from reoffending.
In response to pushback last session, the bill’s sponsors have made some changes that would allow certain entities, such as some levels of law enforcement and the state Department of Education to have access to a person's sealed criminal records. Records would remain sealed from private employers, for example.
Advocates, state lawmakers and formerly incarcerated people held a rally at the state Capitol this week calling for the passage of the latest version of the bill. In a statement to City & State, Cruz expressed optimism that support for the bill will increase this year. “We had significant support last year, that will only increase once we finalize amendments to the bill,” Cruz wrote. When asked whether the latest changes to the bill – in which certain entities are able to unseal records – would compromise the integrity of the legislation, the Corona Assembly member said the sponsors of the bill are actively working with the Department of Education, business and law enforcement to ensure the bill supports economic development and communities.
Last session, the Clean Slate bill never made it out of the Assembly Codes Committee – the committee responsible for reviewing all legislation focused on the state’s criminal justice system. Chair of the Codes Committee Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, who is also a co-sponsor of Clean Slate, said there was a lot of support for the bill but members could not come to a consensus because of the “complicated” nature of the bill. “The devil is in the details in terms of which crimes are included and the timetables that are involved,” Dinowitz said, noting the slightly altered balance of power in the Codes Committee this session. Last year, the committee was made up of 16 Democrats and six Republicans. This year, there are 15 and seven respectively.
Republicans, by and large, have expressed opposition to Clean Slate and almost certainly won’t be helping to get the bill over the finish line. Although Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay said he believes in second chances, Barclay also pointed to the need for thorough background checks. “There are any number of occupations where a background check is important: in personal care settings, positions around children, jobs that handle finances. People have the right to make informed decisions,” Barclay wrote in a statement to City & State.
The criticism of the bill does not end with the Republican caucus, some Democrats have also raised concerns about the bill. Among them is former Democratic Assembly Member Tom Abinanti, who wrote a memo about the language of the bill that he said would prevent vulnerable entities from performing background checks relevant to the work. “Our society depends on having background checks, in sensitive positions,” Abinanti said. “We have to carefully go through that bill and make sure that everywhere there’s common agreement that background checks should be conducted, they're going to be allowed and not prohibited.”
The former Assembly member said he met with Cruz several times before leaving office last year and confirmed Cruz was receptive to his concerns about the bill. “I believe that if she's made the changes that she's told me she was going to make, I would vote for the bill now,” Abinanti said.
While Hochul directly included Clean Slate as part of her 2022 State of the State address, mention of the bill was noticeably absent from this year’s address, causing many advocates and pundits to question the governor’s current position on the bill. When asked by City & State, a spokesperson for the administration underscored Hochul’s history of “removing barriers to reentry” and said the governor is committed to “working with the legislature on all legislative proposals that move the ball forward on this issue.”
Several new lawmakers have affirmed their support of the bill, including newly elected Assembly Members George Alvarez and Brian Cunningham. “People with criminal history are locked out of opportunities. We have to give them this opportunity to live like everybody else because they’ve already paid their debt to society,” Alvarez said.
While the future of the Clean Slate bill remains uncertain at present, the codes committee chair says the committee plans to work to address the criticisms raised about the bill. “We're going to continue working on it with the sponsor, and what will happen by June? Who knows?” Dinowitz said.
Correction: Due to an editing error, the subheading of this story originally used an inaccurate word to describe the sealing of old criminal records.