Advocates say Hochul holds the key to fresh starts for those with criminal records
Over 2 million New Yorkers with criminal records may soon have the opportunity for a fresh start, thanks to the Clean Slate bill currently awaiting Gov. Kathy Hochul's signature. While opponents raise concerns over its far-reaching effects, supporters say it has the potential to improve communities and stimulate the economy.
"A second chance isn't really a chance if it isn't fair," said Zaki Smith, who said he has experienced firsthand the challenges that individuals with criminal records face in society since his release from prison years ago. He believes the Clean Slate bill, if signed into law, promises to address these issues.
"The myth of individuals being defined by one moment in their life is insane," said Smith.
The bill has already been passed by both the Assembly and Senate and offers an automatic process for sealing certain conviction records. Misdemeanors would be sealed after three years and most felonies after eight. However, eligibility excludes those under probation or parole supervision, as well as individuals with convictions like sex offenses or class A felonies, such as murder.
"It provides access to higher employment, higher education and housing," said Johari Frasier, an Equal Justice Works legal fellow at Bronx Defenders.
Frasier says the potential impact is significant, as the bill could affect an estimated 2.3 million New Yorkers. Notably, many of those with conviction records in New York City are people of color.
"For the average person, it means not worrying about reporting a misdemeanor after three years without another conviction," Frasier notes.
There are exceptions for certain licensing agencies, and law enforcement will still have access to records. Advocates argue that the bill takes a significant step toward combating discrimination especially in employment.
"They still have this knee-jerk reaction to say no despite nondiscrimination policies," says Frasier.
“I’ve been a powerful inspiration to my community, I’ve worked with young people, I’ve done things in Africa,” said Smith.
Smith said in the 20 years he’s been out of prison, he’s not only lived a productive life but also benefited his community. He stresses that most employers do not consider the good deeds or changes individuals have made once they see a criminal record.
"Denying opportunities to employment is not about safety. It may lead to returning to the circumstances that led to incarceration," said Smith.
However, not everyone is on board with the Clean Slate bill.
"My concern is not for those seeking change. They should have a means to do this. My concern is for those who don't want to change," Assembly Member Michael Tannousis said.
Tannousis has been strongly against the bill since its introduction. He favors the existing sealing order process, which allows judges to consider cases individually. Tannousis compares the Clean slate to bail reform.
“Although people obviously deserve those second chances, in a situation like this where you have blanket laws where there’s an automatic sealing after a certain amount of time, it would lead to unintended consequences,” said Tannousis.
The governor has until Dec. 31 to sign the legislation. Smith, who has become a symbol of transformation after his release, looks forward to the potential impact of this bill not only in New York but across the United States.
"Communities of color nationwide have been impacted by the criminal justice system. If New York can do it, other states can too," Smith said, emphasizing the far-reaching implications of this legislation.
If the governor signs the bill, it will not take immediate effect. Instead, there will be a year for implementation, and agents will have a three-year period to ensure proper execution.