While the decision to close Riker’s Island and passage of legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility have been rightly trumpeted as major reforms of some of New York’s most deleterious criminal justice policies and practices, an extremely important piece of progressive legislation has gone largely unnoticed and uncelebrated: beginning in October, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers will be eligible to have their old criminal convictions sealed.
As part of Raise the Age legislation, the legislature passed and Governor Cuomo signed C.P.L. § 160.59, “Sealing of Certain Convictions,” into law on April 10th. New York’s new sealing law opens critical opportunities for those whose convictions occurred long ago to have their records sealed, thereby increasing their opportunities to obtain employment, housing and other necessities of life that their criminal records have made it difficult to obtain. This change in the law allows people who have not been convicted of a crime in 10 years to seal up to two past convictions. Being able to seal certain convictions will open the doors to critical opportunities for New Yorkers with criminal record histories.
“The significance of this sealing legislation is enormous,” says Sebastian Solomon, Director of New York Policy at the Legal Action Center. “When people complete their sentences they are expected to return to their communities and support themselves and their families, yet criminal records often create barriers to the very opportunities that make it possible to successfully reenter society. This law helps reduce those barriers.”
On a national level, the sealing legislation positions New York at the forefront of reform alongside other states who have taken similar steps to reform ill-conceived and costly laws and policies that create lifelong collateral consequences for convictions. New York is now one of 17 states in the country that has enacted sealing legislation for certain types of felony offenses, a critical step forward in our march towards reducing the many barriers faced by the 1 in 3 Americans who have criminal records.
“The Legal Action Center has been fighting for more than three decades to remove the many harmful barriers that people with criminal records face. This sealing legislation is a major victory for people who have completed their sentences and not committed a crime for a substantial period of time. They deserve the chance to rebuild their lives with dignity,” says Paul N. Samuels, President and Director of the Legal Action Center. “We are thrilled that this critical reform has finally been passed into law. We will work with our colleagues and clients to submit applications for all those who are eligible.”
At the same time, there are many deserving people who will not benefit from this law and hence there is still much work left to do to reduce the many harmful, and often life-long, collateral consequences of criminal justice involvement. The new law creates an opportunity for many types of convictions to be sealed, but not all, and the application process is complicated and may require legal assistance to complete. In order to qualify for sealing, the applicant cannot have been convicted of any crime for a period of ten years, and cannot have any pending charges.
The Legal Action Center salutes New York State for passage of this important reform. We also will continue to advocate, alongside our organizational colleagues and champions in the legislature, for additional reforms that reduce the many harmful collateral consequences of conviction, including sealing additional convictions and reducing the length of time that people must wait to be eligible for sealing.