Reforming the criminal justice system is almost always fraught, but it’s especially so in an election year – and especially when crime rates are also on the rise. In New York, this perfect storm has already affected state policy, with Gov. Kathy Hochul making 11th-hour recommendations to tighten bail reform in the 2023 state budget. There’s little doubt the changes were driven at least partially by voters’ discontent over rising crime rates and the subsequent foothold Hochul’s opponents are gaining as the primary election approaches.
Amid the politicking, New York policymakers should be on guard to prevent good policy from getting swept up in this anti-reform environment. Most at risk now is “clean slate” legislation (S.1553C) that would automatically seal old criminal records of thousands of New Yorkers. New York wouldn’t be the first state to adopt clean slate – New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Utah have already enacted some version of it – but it should be next, because these policies open doors to employment, housing and educational advancement that have been shown to decrease recidivism.
If passed, the clean slate bill would prevent most people from seeing or accessing an individual’s criminal record three years after a misdemeanor conviction and seven years after a felony, provided certain conditions are met, including no additional charges and no parole or probation. Sex offenses are also excluded. Compromises made to the bill have allowed law enforcement agencies, defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges to access these records, as well as employers who are required to perform a fingerprint-based background check and officials who issue gun ownership licenses.
Despite these enumerated exceptions and the openness of sponsor Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, to additional compromises, some senators continue to raise objections that this legislation, if passed, would exacerbate the uptick in crime being experienced across New York. The mechanics of this supposition are unexplained – are we really safer when, for example, employers and landlords know that an applicant was convicted of stealing a pair of shoes six years ago?
Studies show the opposite is true: People are less likely to commit crimes when employers and landlords can’t see the history of a years-old criminal conviction. When the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, researched the impacts of clean slate laws in Michigan, it found clear benefits for both former offenders and the public. About a year after sealing, former offenders’ prospects of employment rose an average of 13 percent and wages by an average of 23 percent, as unemployed and underemployed former offenders found better work more easily following expungement.
The consequences of conviction-driven unemployment are steep, not only for the individual but also for the public. According to Right on Crime, a project of conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, convictions cost Americans between $78 billion and $87 billion in annual GDP. When convictions are sealed, it significantly reduces the burden on taxpayers to finance or supplement the services that are often provided to those whose records are preventing them from gainful employment.
Public safety also benefits from clean slate policies. Researchers found that only 4 percent of Michigan expungement recipients were convicted of another offense within five years. In fact, the rearrest rate for this group – 4.7 arrests per 100 individuals – appeared to be lower than the baseline for all Michigan adults – 6.6 arrests per 100 individuals.
Michigan has been studied most comprehensively, but New York’s neighbors – Pennsylvania and New Jersey – have also seen millions of records wiped clean, paving the way for better employment, educational advancement and more secure housing. Now is New York’s opportunity to do the same. As S.1553C moves through the Senate and Assembly in the waning weeks of the legislative session, policymakers should set aside the rhetoric and politicking that would unfairly tie this legislation up with soft-on-crime accusations, because in reality, there are few better policies for reducing economic and public safety costs for New Yorkers.
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