Criminal Justice

This year’s Clean Slate debate is a familiar one

New York lawmakers have long argued over whose records should be sealed, from whom they should be kept and how long after they served prison time.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he wants to pass Clean Slate this year after the bill stalled in his chamber last year.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he wants to pass Clean Slate this year after the bill stalled in his chamber last year. Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images

Democratic state leaders find themselves in nearly the exact same position they were in during last year’s budget cycle when it comes to the Clean Slate Act. All three agree the legislation sealing criminal records to make it easier to find employment should pass, yet with just days left in the legislative session, they haven’t come to an agreement to actually get it done.

The three leaders each commented on their commitment to approving the Clean Slate Act when speaking with reporters on Wednesday. “I feel very confident that we will be able to reach an agreement,” state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said. “I think at this point it may be just technicalities.” Her chamber passed the legislation for the first time last year, but it stalled in the Assembly. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie reaffirmed that he wants to get the bill over the finish line on Wednesday after making similar comments last month and following the passage of the state budget. And Gov. Kathy Hochul echoed Stewart-Cousins’ comments to reporters as well. “I supported Clean Slate even last year, it’s just down to the technical changes that we’re having conversations about,” Hochul said. “So we don’t have the final version yet, but it is something conceptually I do support.”

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. While Clean Slate was not part of this year’s budget negotiations, leaders offered similar platitudes last year during budget negotiations after Hochul offered her own version of the Clean Slate Act in her executive proposal. In theory, the bill had support from the three people in the room, yet when the final budget passed, Clean Slate didn’t make the cut. At issue then, as now, were “technical” issues that prevented officials from coming to a final agreement. 

At the time, the major difference between the legislative and gubernatorial versions of the Clean Slate Act came down to how much time would need to pass before someone’s criminal record would get automatically sealed. On paper, all parties agreed on three years post-sentence for misdemeanors and seven years for felonies, provided the person stays out of trouble during that time. But the difference was in when that clock would begin ticking. Legislators proposed that once someone gets released from prison, the clock would start. Parole time would count toward the waiting period as well, so someone who has five years of parole would see their records sealed two years after that if they were convicted of a felony.

Under the governor’s proposal, a person would need to wait until the end of their entire sentence – whether the state released them early or not – and the entirety of the mandated post-release supervision period before the clock for sealing would start. In other words, someone sentenced to 10 years in prison with five years mandatory parole would need to wait the entirety of those 15 years before the countdown on the seven-year period for record sealing to begin, even if they got out of prison after only five or six years.

Criminal justice reform advocates at the time strongly opposed Hochul’s version for the significant amount of extra time someone would need to wait before getting their records sealed and therefore experiencing the benefits of the bill. And between then and now, it doesn’t seem as though state leaders have made significant progress on finding compromise. The legislative proposal introduced this year reflected tweaks addressing concerns some expressed about the ability of certain entities to access criminal records. The updated language would allow the Department of Education, judges and law enforcement to access sealed records to assuage fears regarding jobs around children and the ability of law enforcement to perform its job. The legislation would never have applied to sex crimes. Lawmakers left the provisions that dictated the waiting period before record sealing alone.

A spokesperson for the governor would not say whether Hochul was still pushing for the version she introduced last year, nor offer any specifics about the “technical” sticking points if she were proposing something different. When asked whether the governor was still pushing for her proposal from last year, a spokesperson for state Senate sponsor Zellnor Myrie told City & State “kinda sorta.” Assembly sponsor Catalina Cruz did not return a request for comment.