The lasting consequences of criminal convictions

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

Hundreds of New Yorkers with arrest warrants for failure to answer summonses issued by the NYPD for minor charges such as drinking alcohol on the street, unlawful possession of marijuana, riding a bike on a sidewalk, disorderly conduct and other such offenses took full advantage of a chance this month to start over with a “clean slate.”

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which partnered with the Office of Court Administration and the Legal Aid Society for last Saturday’s Clean Slate warrant expungement event at West Harlem’s Soul Saving Church, reported that 409 New Yorkers had their summons vacated at the one-day amnesty event. Those with open misdemeanor or felony warrants that could not be resolved at the event received free legal advice.

Both District Attorney Cyrus Vance and Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, who has held similar events in Brooklyn, are to be commended for providing this important opportunity. But for some individuals, problems will last long after the warrant is vacated.  Why? Because in pleading guilty to the minor offenses and misdemeanors for which they’ve been charged, these New Yorkers may experience employment and housing consequences that haunt them for years to come. 

Blacks and Latinos Disproportionately Impacted

Studies by leading researchers have shown that the “redemption time” — the time it takes for an individual’s likelihood of being arrested to be close to that of individuals with no criminal record — is between seven and thirteen years.  In other words, after this time, criminal records predict very little.  But they continue to act as real barriers to getting good jobs and stable housing. 

With extremely limited exceptions, criminal records are not sealed in New York State and they are never expunged.  Unlike any number of states in the country, including Pennsylvania, California and Massachusetts, which have enacted laws sealing or expunging certain conviction records, New York has not yet come to grips with the fact that stale criminal records held by millions of its citizens – the majority of them black and Latino – continue to exact harm on individuals and their families long after any predictive value has ended. 

The New York City Fair Chance Act, which became effective late last month, will help ensure that individuals with criminal conviction histories are able to compete for employment on their merits, not eliminated before they even had a chance.  The Community Service Society (CSS) played a key role in drafting and ensuring passage of this law, and we expect great things from it.  But the fact remains that at some point – not at the outset of the job application, but after a conditional hiring offer is made – the job applicant will have to answer questions about their background.  And convictions – even those from the 70s and 80s – will be discussed and considered. 

The New York State legislature has time and again considered bills, including one supported by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, which would seal or suppress stale conviction records for civil purposes.  These bills would preserve public safety by permitting the stale conviction information to be viewed by law enforcement.  But they have gone nowhere. 

  A Need for Rational Criminal History Record Policy

In less than two months, state lawmakers will return to Albany for the start of the 2016 legislative session. Finding common-ground on legislation that moves New York forward in establishing fairer and more reasonable criminal history record policies should be one of their top priorities. Why? Because when we put up obstacles for people with criminal histories who are looking for work, we make it harder for them to support their families and become law-abiding citizens.

Consider this: One in three New York residents have had an arrest that has led to being fingerprinted.  And as we know, the impact of having a criminal record falls heaviest on blacks and Latinos who already tend to have higher rates of unemployment and experience racial discrimination in the labor market. We must acknowledge the collateral consequences imposed on individuals convicted of crimes, irrespective of how minor, creating barriers to jobs, housing, benefits and the right to vote.

These days you hear a lot of talk from lawmakers – from both ends of the political spectrum – about the need to level the playing field for people re-entering society with criminal histories. New York can be a leader in this effort if legislators can look past their differences and come together to pass laws – including those that seal stale conviction records – that will give people a fair opportunity to join the workforce and grow the state’s economy.

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