Convictions follow NYers after they've paid their time. Is a 'Clean Slate' the answer?

Tiffany Cusaac-Smith
New York State Team

There’s one part of Melinda Agnew’s past she can’t shake. It followed her as she earned a college degree, advocated in her community and even landed a teaching assistant position in the Syracuse school district.

In 1999, Agnew was sentenced to three years of probation stemming from assault and gun charges. More than 20 years later, it continues to cost her jobs and promotions, and affordable housing for her family that includes her mother and three teenage daughters.

Agnew, 45, accepts what she did was wrong. But she has a hard time accepting the way that history continues to impede her, particularly when she's stereotyped as angry. 

Melinda Agnew, a Syracuse resident who's advocating for the Clean Slate Act legislation. If passed, it would automatically expunge and seal many misdemeanors and felonies after a certain period.

“Here I am, I’m being judged, like, 'OK, she’s aggressive’ automatically because of what my record said 21 years ago, and that’s not who I am today,” she said. 

Agnew, who now works as a contact tracer and is a community leader with the Center for Community Alternatives, is advocating for a clean slate through legislation of the same moniker that would automatically expunge and seal certain misdemeanor and felony offenses after a period of time.

New York’s Clean Slate Act legislation comes as other states enact and consider new expungement laws.

Michigan’s expansion included more traffic offenses and marijuana misdemeanors to qualify for expungement. The earliest automatic expungement will be rolled out in Michigan will be in 2023.

NY's bill could have major impact

With more than 2 million New Yorkers having a conviction record, the impact of the legislation would be vast. Automatic sealing would occur one year after the person is sentenced for a misdemeanor and three years after a felony, advocates say. 

A person could have their record expunged — which is stronger than sealing and essentially deletes convictions from their record — at least five years after being sentenced for a misdemeanor and seven years after being convicted of a felony, according to the legislation. 

An individual seeking expungement can’t have a pending criminal charge in the state, be on probation or parole for the eligible convictions, or be registered as a sex offender, the legislation states.

Exterior view of the New York State Capitol, Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Albany, N.Y.

Once the record is sealed, it would be disseminated in specific instances such as to a prosecutor for the purpose of a pending criminal action or to government entities responsible for issuing gun licenses. 

Otherwise, it would not be given out to the public, a private agency, or used by a state agency. 

Advocates, many progressive lawmakers and even JPMorgan Chase say that this will help people with criminal records overcome a lifetime of barriers to stable employment, housing, and other necessary resources. 

“We are acutely aware the punishments our clients face do not end when they leave the criminal courthouse or walk out of prison,” said Alice Fontier, president of the state Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The stain of a criminal record is deep-seated and lasting. It touches nearly every facet of our clients' lives.” 

While some conservatives believe that sealing convictions can be done in a more effective manner, they say this legislation is a bridge too far.

Some Republicans say the legislation would be a public safety threat and leave landlords without the ability to properly vet potential tenants. 

"Cities across New York state have seen a dramatic increase in violent crimes over the past two years," state Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, Niagara County, said in a statement. "Now is not the time to coddle criminals — now is a time to stand up for law-abiding citizens."

Advocates say people deserve second chance

Assemblyman Demond Meeks, D-Rochester, at a racial justice training rally.

Assemblyman Demond Meeks, D-Rochester, pushed back on that assertion, saying the potential recipients are law-abiding citizens who've oftentimes have poured themselves into their communities through activism and volunteer work. 

He said the legislation will begin to restore communities that have been impacted by over-policing and give formerly incarcerated people who’ve given back to their communities the opportunity to better themselves, too. 

“We see individuals come home (from incarceration) and their ability to mentor children in the community, to even mentor adults and speak life into people,” Meeks said.

Still, some prosecutors worry that the measure is too broad, puts public health at risk, and would require an onslaught of work to expunge so many records. 

But many districtattorneys, experts and law enforcement officials agree that there's room for improvement in the expungement process, viewing it as a crime-fighting effort that'll also reduce recidivism. 

NY's existing process viewed as burdensome

Cedric Fulton outside the Bliss Towers in Hudson on May 4, 2021. Fulton lived in the towers as a child, and as an advocate with Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition is supporting the Clean Slate Act which would allow people with prior convictions to expunge their records.

In 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a measure allowing individuals who’ve remained crime-free for 10 years to request the sealing for less than three offenses.  Approved records are still available for law-enforcement purposes. 

Yet, applying for the resource and even finding out the possibility of getting a record cleared proved onerous, advocates say. Less than 1% of New Yorkers eligible for sealing have made it through the process. 

Agnew was one of those people who found the process too burdensome.

“I knew about expungement but I didn’t even know which direction to go to get my records expunged,” she said. 

She added that having expungement and sealing more readily accessible would be an example to young people that there are better outcomes if they remain out of trouble. Instead, she said, her decades-old criminal record follows her. 

Stephen Dunn, senior staff attorney at the Community Service Society of New York, said criminal records are more accessible than ever in part because the sale of conviction records on the internet has become big business. 

It makes it very different to live with a conviction record than compared with just a few decades ago, he said.

“The burden of a conviction record has been significantly increased by these industry trends," Dunn said. "Passing a background check is now an unavoidable prerequisite to obtaining a job or to securing housing.”

He added: “It is easy to imagine that someone with a 25-year-old conviction is more negatively impacted by that conviction today than they were when they were first sentenced.” 

Some want bill to be narrowed

Members of the New York Assembly debate in the Assembly Chamber at the New York State Capitol, Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

But while many do support changing the process, some lawmakers, police departments, and others felt that legislation should be more narrowly crafted. 

Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark said she believes in second chances and reasonable measures to seal and expunge criminal records. But, she said, the proposed legislation could lead to public safety concerns. 

Clark told a Senate committee last week that she would like to narrow the scope of automatic expungement, leaving it open to most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. 

She would also like to see court discretion on violent felonies, as well as more exceptions as to who can see the criminal histories. The statute should also accommodate repeat patterns of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, she said.

“These suggestions are based on decades of experience as a judge, as a prosecutor and a lifelong Bronx resident,” she told committee members. “I share these potential solutions with you today with an eye towards implementing restorative measures and clean slate initiatives that have the best chance of achieving your legislative intent without consequences that could jeopardize public safety.” 

New York City Police Department Chief of Department Rodney Harrison recommended the criminal records not be destroyed and that police agencies be allowed to use them for legitimate law-enforcement purposes while shielding convictions that meet the criteria from the public. 

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz , D-Queens, said she hears the concerns that were expressed by law enforcement and district attorneys, though she worries that those carve-outs would exclude many people who have changed their lives. 

“On the one hand, we are saying, ‘Yes, we are supportive of people being able to move forward with their lives and having jobs and being able to put a roof over their head,’” Cruz said. But carving them out would prevent them from moving forward with their lives, she said. 

'Everybody deserves a second chance'

Cedric Fulton waves to a former neighbor outside the Bliss Towers in Hudson on May 4, 2021. Fulton lived in the towers as a child, and as an advocate with Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition is supporting the Clean Slate Act which would allow people with prior convictions to expunge their records.

Cedric Fulton might be one of those people who could be left out should the measure eliminate a number of offenses. 

Since his incarceration, Fulton, 49, has become a community advocate in and around his hometown of Hudson, Columbia County.

He has obtained both a bachelor’s degree and is a leader at the Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition. Even though he has changed his life around, this measure would allow the single father of two to use his higher education and obtain gainful employment to take care of his family, to get in his car and not worry about gas. 

But he still recognizes the possibility that he could not get a clean slate. 

“If I don't deserve a second chance, I'm sure that there's others that are worthy and deserve a second chance,” he said, also noting, “Everybody deserves a second chance.” 

At the Senate committee meeting, district attorneys, law enforcement officials and others praised Agnew and Fulton, holding them up as models of redemption — the type of people who should be given a clean slate. 

The two, panelists said, had proven themselves to be of value to their community. Allowing people to redeem themselves while maintaining public safety, will be the balancing act, many prosecutors said. 

More:Cuomo signs bill restoring NY voting rights for people on parole

More:Students in NY's Black, Latino districts more likely to be without internet last fall

More:'This verdict is not full justice': New York leaders react after Derek Chauvin verdict

Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers race and justice for the USA TODAY Network of NY. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac