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The Clean Slate Act Can Build a More Prosperous New York

Legislation to seal criminal records would remove barriers to jobs and housing.

Published: January 14, 2022

A crim­inal record is almost always perman­ent and public, caus­ing economic hard­ship for people saddled with misde­meanor or felony convic­tions, and espe­cially for those who have served time behind bars. The Bren­nan Center supports the Clean Slate Act (S. 1553C) as a way to create oppor­tun­it­ies for the millions of New York­ers impacted by the crim­inal justice system.

There is no such thing as a “minor” crim­inal record. Accord­ing to Bren­nan Center research, time in prison reduces one’s subsequent annual earn­ings by around 50 percent, adding up to an aver­age life­time loss of around $500,000. A convic­tion alone reduces life­time earn­ings by about $100,000. Even a misde­meanor slashes annual earn­ings by more than 15 percent. These disturb­ing find­ings suggest that crim­inal justice involve­ment can func­tion as a poverty trap that prevents people from achiev­ing prosper­ity, sets up future gener­a­tions for mater­ial depriva­tion, and under­mines our communit­ies’ well-being.

More than 2.3 million New York­ers have a crim­inal record of some kind. The consequences for the state are dire, as we found in a recent study:

  • Some 337,000 New York­ers have spent time in prison, miss­ing out on $1.9 billion in earn­ings every year. foot­note1_whu7edx 1 This figure is based on national estim­ates.
  • This burden is dispro­por­tion­ately borne by Black and Latino New York­ers, who together make up nearly three-quar­ters of this popu­la­tion.

 

Under current state law, people who wish to remove these barri­ers to secur­ing jobs and even hous­ing must apply to have their records sealed. But record seal­ing remains out of reach for many due to eligib­il­ity limit­a­tions, a complic­ated and poten­tially costly admin­is­trat­ive proced­ure, and the state’s fail­ure to publi­cize the oppor­tun­ity. By auto­mat­ing the process, the Clean Slate Act would remove these imped­i­ments at a stroke and make New York part of a bipar­tisan, nation­wide move­ment to offer mean­ing­ful second chances. States as varied as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Utah have all passed similar laws; Utah’s passed its legis­lature unan­im­ously.

Under the Clean Slate Act, people who have been free of convic­tions and out of prison for a set period would have their crim­inal records auto­mat­ic­ally sealed, elim­in­at­ing the need to go to court or hire a lawyer. Misde­meanor records would be sealed after three years. Felon­ies would be sealed after seven. In most cases, people would not need to disclose a sealed record when apply­ing for a job, a profes­sional license, or hous­ing.

Passing this law would create oppor­tun­it­ies for hundreds of thou­sands of New York­ers overnight. Research shows that record-seal­ing laws increase both employ­ment and wages among bene­fi­ciar­ies. The law would likely help the state economy, too; a new analysis finds that states with more felony records tend to have lower statewide employ­ment.

The bill takes public safety seri­ously. Licens­ing agents and law enforce­ment could still access sealed records in special cases, such as applic­a­tions for fire­arm permits and prosec­u­tions for new alleged offenses. The three- and seven-year wait­ing peri­ods also ensure that the law bene­fits people who have both avoided contact with the crim­inal justice system for a signi­fic­ant period of time and are unlikely to become involved with it again.

The Clean Slate Act gives us a rare chance to build a fairer, safer, and more pros­per­ous New York, and we urge lawmakers to seize the oppor­tun­ity.

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