Proposed Bill Aims To Purge 2.3 Million New Yorkers’ Criminal Records

Newly-proposed legislation aims to purge the criminal histories of approximately 2.3 million New York state residents with the hopes of improving access to housing and employment opportunities. The “Clean Slate” law, introduced by State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, would automatically seal and then expunge convictions for residents who have completed their sentences and probation, supervised release, and sex offender registration periods. 

The bill would cover most types of crimes—ranging from misdemeanors to felonies such as assaults, robberies, and even some murders—though its benefits would not extend to those convicted of crimes which keep them permanently on the state’s sex offender registry.

“We will either be serious about rehabilitation and reintegration or we will be a state that is about permanent incarceration,” said Myrie, speaking at a press conference announcing the initiative. “And so for the millions of New Yorkers that are living with convictions, we will stand up for you and we are going to fight to make this clean slate act our reality.”

The proposal builds on the example of the state’s recently passed marijuana decriminalization bill, which automatically clears criminal histories for those convicted of certain cannabis-related offenses. Across the country, other states have enacted similar but more limited versions of the “Clean Slate” model, exempting certain felonies and violent crimes from being purged.

Syracuse resident Melissa Agnew is one of the millions of New Yorkers the bill is designed to help. In 1999, Agnew was sentenced to three years of probation for an assault and weapons charge. Since then, she says she turned her life around, holding down jobs in her local school district and health department, and even getting a bachelor’s degree. But the consequences of her conviction linger decades later.

I have applied for jobs that I am highly qualified for and have been rejected because of my record,” she said at the press conference. “I am a single mom of three. I take care of my elderly mother, and when you cannot move up the ladder at work, it’s hard to earn more support for your family.”

For Latino and Black residents like herself, Agnew argues that criminal histories exacerbate racial discrimation, especially from landlords and employers.

What I have accomplished for the past 22 years, you know, does not matter to them. They do not look at me as holistically,” she said.

New York already has an application-based process for sealing criminal histories. But advocates argue the process is not accessible, often requiring the assistance of legal counsel. Less than 0.5% of those who are estimated to be eligible for the current process have had their records erased, according to The Center for Community Alternatives, one of the groups pushing for the bill.

New York’s Republican leaders argue the proposal goes way too far. 

“This is another example of legislation under the guise of ‘reform’ that will lead to less safe communities,” said GOP Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt. “How does concealing this information protect vulnerable individuals from encountering potentially violent offenders at work or at home? Our conference will continue to focus on proposals that restore common sense and public safety.”

Republican Assembly leader William Barclay says his caucus might go for a more moderate version of the legislation, as has been passed in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. 

“If they had certain carve-outs, probably many on our side of the aisle would be more likely to support something like this,” he said. 

But, he insisted, landlords and businesses should have a right to know about serious crimes for which prospective tenants or workers have been convicted. 

“The fact that they committed those crimes may have bearing on whether they get the job or whether they are able to rent the house or the apartment,” Barclay said. “I don’t think that’s illegitimate for someone to know that.”

Right now, the legislation is in the codes committees of the State Senate and Assembly. Advocates hope Albany will vote on it before this legislative session ends in June.