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Queens Assemblywoman Sponsors Bill That Would Seal and Expunge Criminal Records

Queens Assembly Member Catalina Cruz on a virtual press briefing Thursday (Photo: via Zoom)

March 3, 2021 By Michael Dorgan 

Queens Assembly Member Catalina Cruz is sponsoring a bill that would see the conviction records of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers expunged if passed.

The bill, called the Clean Slate Act, aims to effectively seal and expunge the criminal history of New Yorkers who have been convicted of a crime as a means to help them integrate back into society. The bill does not apply to those convicted of crimes such as murder, manslaughter and sex crimes.

Advocates for the bill, such as Cruz, say that people who have served time in prison have paid their debt to society and should not be forever burdened with a record. People with criminal records, they say, find it difficult to find employment and access housing.

“We must eliminate the collateral damage created by past conviction records,” Cruz said during a virtual press briefing Thursday.

“As part of our ongoing pursuit of true criminal justice reform, we must focus on human dignity, fairness, and guaranteeing that individuals are not punished beyond their sentences,” Cruz said.

The legislation, which is in committee, consists of a two-step process where past convictions are sealed and later expunged if certain conditions are met.

A person convicted of a felony– who serves prison time– would have their record automatically sealed three years after getting out of jail. After seven years of leaving prison, the record would be expunged.

In the case of a misdemeanor, it would be sealed one year after getting out of jail–or if the person is not given jail time, it would apply a year after sentencing. The record would be expunged five years after being released from jail– or from the time of sentencing.

Sealed convictions would not show up for most civil background checks, such as for housing and employment. When the record is expunged, it directs the court to treat the criminal conviction as if it had never occurred. It essentially removes it from a defendant’s criminal record.

However, people will not be eligible to have their record sealed or expunged if they have criminal charges pending or are on probation or parole. Serious crimes like murder come with lifetime parole, Cruz said.

The legislation is named after the Clean Slate campaign— an initiative being carried out across several states that seeks to reform the criminal justice system. The New York branch of the campaign is made up of groups like the Center for Community Alternatives, the Community Service Society of New York and the Legal Aid Society.

The campaign group said that the bill had the potential to expunge the records of 2.3 million state residents.

Advocates say that a Michigan law that expunged convictions in that state has proven successful. Within one year of expunging conviction records, people who had criminal records in Michigan were 11 percent more likely to be employed and earn higher wages, the group stated–citing a study conducted last year.

The New York branch of the Clean Slate campaign said that black and brown New Yorkers are most affected by the consequences of a conviction record due to over-policing and over-prosecution.

“Records clearance remains out of reach for most New Yorkers, worsening racial and economic inequality,” Clean Slate New York said in a statement.

“We have the opportunity now to reverse course by ensuring more New Yorkers can access relief, and that all those who can benefit will – automatically.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Cruz was a co-sponsor of the bill. She is in fact the sponsor.

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