2023 session wrap-up

With new bill, Clean Slate looks closer than ever to becoming law

State leaders say they’ve reached a three-way deal on sealing people’s criminal records after a multi-year period.

Catalina Cruz is the Assembly sponsor of Clean Slate.

Catalina Cruz is the Assembly sponsor of Clean Slate. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

State leaders said they would come to an agreement to approve the Clean Slate Act before the end of the scheduled session this year, and they appear poised to keep that promise. 

Lawmakers introduced a new bill that represents a three-way deal between legislative leaders and Gov. Kathy Hochul late Monday night to seal the records of most people convicted of a crime after a certain number of years have passed. Met with broad support among not only criminal justice advocates, but unions, big employers and business groups, the legislation is meant to make it easier for someone with a criminal record who has stayed out of trouble since their conviction to get jobs and housing. 

The new version of the proposal has two substantive changes compared to past versions, but otherwise remains largely similar. Under the new language, someone convicted of a felony would need to wait eight years after their release from incarceration before their record automatically seals. Before, it was seven years. The latest version also excludes sex crimes and most Class A felonies, whereas earlier versions only excluded sex crimes. Class A felonies related to possession or sale of a controlled substance would still get sealed. Misdemeanors would get sealed three years after release, which remained unchanged compared to the previous version.

A sticking point during last year’s budget negotiations, when the governor and both houses included Clean Slate in their spending plan pitches, had been what constituted the end of time served for a conviction. Lawmakers proposed that it ended once a person gets released, and the waiting period for sealing would begin immediately upon release, regardless of parole. That remains true in the new version. But the governor had proposed that the full length of the original sentence plus the entire parole period needed to pass before the clock actually started ticking down to get the conviction sealed. That meant that if a judge sentenced a person to 10 years in prison plus five years probation, that person would need to wait 15 years after their conviction before the clock would start counting down for sealing even if they got out of prison early.

Up until now, the specifics on disagreements that leaders needed to work out remained murky. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins had described them as “technical” issues, but wouldn’t elaborate. Hochul offered similar language in recent weeks when asked about the legislation, declining to provide details on what she wanted in the bill compared to what lawmakers had already introduced.

Assembly Member Catalina Cruz, the sponsor of the bill, told City & State that the new version represents a three-way deal between legislative leaders and the governor, rather than a two-way deal among just the two chambers of the Legislature. But she didn’t offer any more information, saying she would not do any press until after it passed. A spokesperson for state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, the sponsor in the upper chamber, did not return a request for comment, but a Senate source confirmed that the new bill is the final result of three-way talks.  A spokesperson for Hochul said she “has been working with the Legislature to strengthen the Clean Slate Act, and we are reviewing their most recent bill draft.”

Criminal justice advocates denounced the changes made in the most recent update as the result of “pressure from the governor” that would bar “thousands” from accessing the benefits of the legislation. But they still supported the new bill. “While we commit ourselves to the on-going struggle to end perpetual punishment for all people, millions of New Yorkers will benefit from the Clean Slate Act, and we call for its immediate passage,” the Clean Slate Coalition said in a statement.

The legislation has faced opposition from the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, which pointed to the logistical challenges of automatically sealing criminal records and asserted the existing law for sealing records – which requires proactive action from those with convictions – suffices. But Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg recently backed the legislation, making the case for the bill in a Daily News op-ed Tuesday morning.

Despite the amount of support the Clean Slate Act has received, it has failed to cross the finish line the past several years even as advocates and lawmakers made strong pushes for the legislation. The state Senate approved it for the first time last June, but it failed in the Assembly. At the beginning of the year, lawmakers introduced an amended bill that addressed some lingering concerns among members that gave law enforcement and the state Department of Education access to sealed records.