New York’s clean slate reforms offer former offenders a second chance
Photo 124736743 © Andrey Popov |


New York’s clean slate reforms offer former offenders a second chance

New York’s approach to automated record sealing strikes an appropriate balance between upholding public safety and offering former offenders a second chance.

Encouraging people to lead law-abiding lives following punishment for a crime becomes challenging when a criminal record interferes with their ability to get a job or rent an apartment years after they’ve paid their debt to society. To promote effective reintegration, New York recently joined states like California, Michigan, and New Jersey in adopting ‘clean slate’ reforms that automatically seal certain criminal conviction records from public view.

Last year, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed Senate Bill S7551A, known as the Clean Slate Act, which will automatically seal eligible conviction records if an individual abides by the law for a specified period after completing their sentence. Under the law, misdemeanor records will be sealed after three years of good conduct. For felony convictions, eight years of good conduct are required before records will be sealed. Sex crimes and Class A felonies, such as murder, are not eligible for sealing under the New York law.

A Data Collaborative for Justice report found that at least 2.2 million people in New York have criminal conviction records––nearly 14% of the state’s adult population. Among New Yorkers with a criminal record, 75% have a misdemeanor as their most serious conviction. Too often, the stigma of a criminal conviction lingers over former offenders for the rest of their lives as they seek employment, housing, and education.

Previously, eligible individuals with criminal histories could have their conviction records sealed, but only after completing a lengthy, cumbersome, and sometimes expensive petition process. An analysis by University of California-Berkeley Law Professor Colleen Chien found that less than 1% of people eligible under New York’s old sealing law successfully navigated the petition process. The new automated sealing process will help ensure that everyone eligible for record relief will receive it.

There is, of course, a valid public safety interest in maintaining criminal records. However, a one-size-fits-all approach to life-long criminal records simply doesn’t make sense. New York’s approach to automated record-sealing strikes a reasonable compromise that proportionately scales the permanence of records to the severity of an offense. Importantly, law enforcement agencies, courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, gun licensing agencies, and employers who work with vulnerable populations will still be able to access sealed records.

Automation of the records-sealing could have public safety benefits to the extent that the stigma associated with criminal records is a barrier to employment and effective reintegration. According to data from the New York State Department of Corrections, nearly one in three people released from New York correctional facilities are reincarcerated within three years of their release.

Research consistently concludes that finding gainful employment and securing stable housing arrangements help reduce the odds of reoffending, but many are barred from these opportunities because of their criminal histories. Sealing conviction records can, therefore, provide many former offenders with a valuable second chance that makes it less likely they’ll commit new crimes in the future.

Major employers in New York have vocalized strong support for the automated record-sealing process. Firms like JPMorgan Chase and Microsoft cited the economic advantages of expanding New York’s labor pool. Employers are increasingly comfortable with hiring former offenders, but a conviction record can still be a barrier for some. In a survey from the Society of Human Resource Management, 33% of managers said they were willing to hire individuals with prior convictions, while 26% said they were not.

According to a 2020 Brennan Center analysis, felony convictions reduce a person’s annual earnings by around 20 percent, and misdemeanor convictions reduce earnings by around 15 percent. This suggests that underemployment stemming from criminal records costs the New York economy around $12.6 billion annually. Automating the record-sealing process will help reduce these costs by eliminating the life-long stigma of a criminal record for eligible New Yorkers.

New York’s approach to automated record sealing strikes an appropriate balance between upholding public safety and offering former offenders a second chance. Other states should look to New York’s new clean slate law as a model for reintegrating former offenders back into productive society.