As the New York State Legislature’s session draws to a close, lawmakers are considering several criminal justice changes, including what’s known as the Clean Slate legislation. It would expunge some criminal records for those who have already served their time in prison.
Supporters of the legislation, who held rallies in cities across the state, say lingering criminal records can lead to a lifetime of blocked opportunities, including discrimination in housing and employment. Advocates who were convicted of crimes and released from prison say it can leave them in a state of “perpetual punishment.”
Since Democrats took over the Legislature in 2019, a number of criminal justice changes have been approved, including bail reform. While many of them were opposed by law enforcement groups, Clean Slate has the backing of some organizations that include police.
Wayne Harris, a former deputy police chief in Rochester, is part of the group Law Enforcement Action Partnership, which includes prosecutors, judges, corrections officers and other law enforcement officials who are working for reform. He has testified at recent legislative hearings on criminal justice reform.
Harris said former prisoners who have served their sentence and have been rehabilitated need to be welcomed back into society.
“Criminal records … often becomes a hindrance to individuals,” said Harris, who added it hampers efforts to get a mortgage, finish an education or open a bank account. “For those individuals who have served their time and qualify based on the language in the legislation, I think it’s appropriate to give them another opportunity to be productive in society.”
Harris said lingering criminal records can have a generational impact and disadvantage the children of former prisoners.
Harris, who retired from the police force after 30 years, said he saw many offenders who would have benefited from a second chance, including a teenage burglar he met early on in his career.
“I literally saw this young man running down the street and carrying a television set at one point,” he said. “As he grew and became an adult, because of his incarceration and re-incarceration and ultimate criminal record, it was very difficult for him to rise above the challenges that that creates for a person.”
He said people need to be offered hope that they can change their lives.
District attorneys in New York also back parts of the proposed legislation. Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, who is a vice president with the state’s District Attorneys Association, said he backs the concept of erasing some criminal records to help a former inmate remake their life.
“I philosophically agree that if people have done their time, that they should not be penalized when they return to society,” Flynn said.
But Flynn said he does not want the records of serious violent felonies, such as murder, rape or child abuse, to be hidden from prosecutors and judges. He said they need to be able to take into account a defendant’s prior criminal history when prosecuting a case and deciding on an appropriate punishment.
“We would not even be able to look and find out what a person did in the past,” Flynn said, “which has some consequences when we're trying to figure out if someone is a repeat offender on a current or future charge.”
A letter from the DA’s Association to the bill’s sponsors says domestic violence and DWI cases often involve repeat offenders. The district attorneys would like to see the bill amended to more closely resemble Michigan’s Clean Slate law, which allows law enforcement to keep “nonpublic” records of past convictions.
The measure has been advancing through Senate and Assembly committees. Lawmakers have until June 10 -- the scheduled end of the session -- to decide whether to put it on the floor for a vote.