The Community Service Society (CSS) applauds the Governor and Legislature for raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York State. The law moves New York toward conformity with the 48 other states that do not hold youth criminally responsible until at least the age of 18. No doubt this is a historic moment.
But it is historic on a different level as well. The “raise the age” legislation includes a provision that will permit individuals in certain circumstances to apply to seal criminal convictions. This is groundbreaking, and it will make a significant difference in the lives of eligible New Yorkers who seek to move beyond past mistakes.
New York has taken a crucial first step. Now more must be done. Permitting New Yorkers with conviction histories to participate fully in our society requires that we take bold measures to ensure that stale records are eradicated while at the same time preserving public safety. At CSS, we see the devastating consequences a conviction history can have, years and even decades after an individual has paid back any debt to society they may owe. Our Next Door Project staff and dedicated older adult volunteers assist more than 750 New Yorkers each year in obtaining, understanding and fixing mistakes in their criminal record rap sheets, and our attorneys work with individuals held back by barriers to reentry. While these are crucial supports, we cannot change the fact that because of the myriad barriers they face, many of our clients are effectively serving life sentences for past mistakes. They rightly seek expungement of their stale conviction records, which have long ago ceased to be predictive of anything.
But current law – even the historic sealing legislation just enacted – will not permit this to happen. Many New Yorkers are not eligible even to apply for the protections afforded by the new legislation because they have had more than two convictions in their lifetimes or have had a violent felony conviction in their past. We must not leave these individuals behind. They are as deserving of the right to move on as anyone else.
For these reasons, and because the hugely disparate racial impacts of policing in this state mean that criminal records-based discrimination is borne most heavily by African American and Latino New Yorkers, CSS encourages our state lawmakers to study and enact even stronger remedies. Expungement of stale criminal records must be among them.
CSS thanks the Governor and the Legislature for their tenacity and fortitude in passing long overdue “raise the age” legislation. We urge them, and will work with them, to continue to make change, embracing solutions that match the scale of the problem.