New York, NY – December 9, 2019: The Legal Action Center (LAC) and Community Service Society of New York (CSS) announce the launch of Clean Slate New York, a coalition-led campaign to pass legislation ending the perpetual punishment of a criminal conviction through broad automatic expungement of criminal records.
In New York, an estimated 2.3 million individuals – 1 in 7 adults – have a criminal conviction on their record. Collateral damage from these records can be wide-ranging and enduring, including significant obstacles to securing housing, employment and other opportunities. One study estimates that the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated individuals is over 27%. And the burden is borne unequally. Decades of over-policing in many communities of color have led to vast racial disparities in who has a record and who must navigate the cascading consequences a record creates.
With support from the national Clean Slate Initiative, Clean Slate New York builds on the decades of advocacy that LAC, CSS and anchor groups bring to the table, and draws on successful campaigns in Pennsylvania and Utah. Clean Slate New York’s goal: statewide automatic records clearance legislation that will enable hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to fully participate in all aspects of our shared communities and the state’s economy.
Partner organizations supporting Clean Slate New York include JustLeadershipUSA, New Yorkers United for Justice, VOCAL-NY, The Legal Aid Society, The Bronx Defenders, the Center for Community Alternatives, and Next100 Fellow, Zaki Smith. The statewide campaign will include and be guided by people with criminal convictions and the communities that have been most heavily impacted by mass incarceration. All members of the Campaign believe that the time to act and achieve real change is now.
Kate Wagner-Goldstein, LAC Director of New York Reentry Initiatives, states, “Every day, our organizations see people trying to move forward with their lives, working hard to be able to support themselves and their families – but coming up against wide-ranging and persistent discriminatory barriers associated with their past convictions. Automatic expungement is crucial to address the wrongs of over-policing, excessive prosecution, and racial injustice in our criminal legal system and to reduce the systemic barriers that disproportionately impact black and brown people throughout the state.”
Judith Whiting, General Counsel at CSS, notes, “New York is often ahead of the game, but on records clearance, we are behind the curve. Our existing law, through which a small segment of people can apply to have their records sealed, in no way meets the need. Fewer than 2,500 individuals statewide have made it through this court-based, personnel-heavy, lawyer-driven process since the law passed two years ago. Millions more New Yorkers with conviction histories are left behind.” She adds, “We need broad-based legislation automating records expungement to right this wrong.”
“Under our current system, if you are found guilty in a trial, or plead guilty in a plea agreement, you can serve your time — but your sentence will never truly end. You will face over 44,000 laws and policies that mean you can now legally be denied a job, a place to live, licensing for your job, educational opportunities, the ability to receive public benefits, and, in some states, the ability to vote — for the rest of your life,” says Zaki Smith, Next100 Fellow, “Rather than continuing to automate injustice through this system of perpetual punishment, New York needs to automate the expungement of eligible criminal records. It is the right thing to do.”
“For the 70 million people living with a criminal record in the US, the penalties of a conviction last far beyond a sentence. We are committed to eliminating the devastating barriers to health, housing, and work — and automated expungement of eligible criminal records is an important step in achieving that for communities that have been brutalized by mass criminalization,” says Megan French-Marcelin, Fair Hiring Project Coordinator of JustLeadershipUSA.
Khalil Cumberbatch, Chief Strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice says, “When I received a pardon from Governor Cuomo in 2014, I believed that I could finally move away from my past criminal record. But the opposite is true. My criminal record still ‘lives’ and is accessible to everyone, at any time, for any reason, including being discriminated against for housing, employment, etc. Expungement allows people like me to not continue to be tethered to our past mistakes and opens a path to a fulfilling future.”
David Condliffe, Executive Director of the Center for Community Alternatives says, “While New York continues to make great strides towards decarceration, we have fallen short when it comes to helping individuals impacted by the criminal justice system fully reintegrate into their communities. Under our current legal structure, the stigma of a criminal conviction – no matter how minor – can haunt an individual decades after they have served their time. If New Yorkers are truly committed to implementing restorative justice, enhancing public safety, and strengthening the economy, automatic expungement must be enshrined in law.”
Wesley Caines, Chief of Staff of the Bronx Defenders says, “Re-entry, or more accurately civic wholeness, shouldn’t take a lifetime to achieve. By automatically expunging records, we can ensure that people are truly granted a meaningful opportunity at civic wholeness, ensuring that things like housing and employment that are essential to a stable life are not perilously out of reach. New York lawmakers have courageously helped lead the way with important criminal justice reforms, and there’s no better way to support those efforts than by passing essential expungement laws that will ensure those who have paid their debt to society are not perpetually made to pay interest on that debt.”
“The way this system works you don’t actually know if people did what they are convicted of doing, because people are forced to cop out to plea deals – which are then called convictions. This happens to so many people. These things follow you for the rest of your days – it could be 20 years later when you try to get a job, get an apartment, and this comes up on your record. Everybody should have an opportunity to expunge their records. Everybody deserves a second chance,” said Dwayne Lee, Community Leader at VOCAL-NY.
“Too often, our clients are deprived access to housing, employment, and critical public benefits because of an old conviction, and despite New York’s sealing statute, too many people are still prevented from leading the successful and rewarding lives they deserve,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “It’s time for New York to finally join other states around the nation by enacting broad automatic expungement legislation. No one should have to suffer the daily consequences of an old mistake, one which does not define who they are. We look forward to working with Albany to make these reforms a reality next session.”
About Legal Action Center: The Legal Action Center (LAC) is the only non-profit law and policy organization in the United States whose sole mission is to fight discrimination against people with criminal records, substance use disorder, HIV, and/or AIDS and to advocate for sound public policies in these areas. Since its founding in 1973, LAC has worked to fight for the civil rights and civil liberties of those they serve, to dismantle discriminatory barriers that systematically deny these rights and liberties, and to combat the stigma and prejudice that keep individuals out of the mainstream of society. LAC has engaged in precedent-setting reentry litigation and helped drive important policy reform. With CSS, LAC co-chairs the New York State Coalition of Reentry Advocates.
About Community Service Society of New York: The Community Service Society of New York (CSS) draws on a 175-year history of excellence in addressing the root causes of economic disparity. CSS’s Legal Department focuses exclusively on reentry-related litigation, policy, and legislative advocacy, and its Next Door Project provides direct rap sheet-related services to more than 700 low-income New Yorkers each year. CSS also convenes the New York Reentry Roundtable, a periodic gathering of directly-impacted individuals, their allies, and advocates, to discuss specific problems affecting individuals with conviction histories and to develop avenues for change. With LAC, CSS co-chairs the New York State Coalition of Reentry Advocates.
You can learn more about this campaign by visiting www.cleanslateny.com.
You can also read Albany Times Union coverage here.