For hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers – most all of them black and brown – having a criminal record is a life-altering event. Doors that were once open – to jobs, a place to live, a license to practice a trade, to the right to serve on a jury or in some cases even the right to vote – are closed. Your ability to provide for yourself and your family: in many cases changed forever.
Want to go to college? You’re going to have to explain why they should let you in in spite of your record. Want just about anything many people take for granted: a job, a decent place to live, a car loan? You’re going to have to explain why you should get it in spite of your record.
And there is no expungement. In other words, your felony and misdemeanor record continues to exist in perpetuity, available for the public to see. This is the case no matter what good works you do or achievements you accomplish after the conviction and paying your debt to society. And this is true even though research shows that at a certain point criminal records are not a predictor of future criminal justice involvement.
Last week I spoke about the struggles of people with conviction histories before an audience of formerly incarcerated individuals, criminal reform advocates, faith-based leaders, grassroots groups, legislators and policymakers gathered in Bedford Stuyvesant for the New York Reentry Roundtable’s first-ever Brooklyn convening. Nearly one hundred people heard from me, from Assemblywoman Annette Robinson and from State Senator Velmanette Montgomery about the need for legislative reform. The day’s most compelling and moving testimonies, however, were presented by STRIVE International’s Afi Turner and by Barry Campbell from the Fortune Society. They spoke in very clear terms about what it has been like to live in a state that does not recognize forgiveness as a legal concept.
It is true that we’ve made progress achieving some measure of fairness for people with criminal records. Chief among them is New York City’s Fair Chance Act, a “Ban the Box” law CSS helped write that was enacted in 2015, and bars employers from asking questions about a person’s criminal history until a conditional job offer is made. And the New York City Human Rights Commission – and advocates across the City – are working hard to make sure employers comply with this law and give applicants the right to compete on their merits. We are justifiably proud of this law.
But we also know that in spite of our best efforts, employers – not to mention colleges, licensing agencies and landlords, none of whom are covered by the Fair Chance Act – continue to make adverse decisions against people with backgrounds based on stereotypes, media hype, and simple prejudice, and most of them are never challenged. To be blunt, criminal record-based discrimination has come to be a socially acceptable proxy for race discrimination.
We have to change this situation. What New York needs is state legislation that expunges criminal conviction histories, which predict nothing other than a lifetime of second class status to their holders. Massachusetts, California, New Jersey and Georgia – among others – all have some form of sealing of criminal records. New York can do this, and better. But we can’t do it right out of the gate. This will take real work.
There have been noble efforts to get legislation passed in New York that would seal records in some limited cases. In fact, there was such a bill (S8113/A10710) in play in the legislature this session. But the bill didn’t come close to passing, and even if it had, it had any number of exclusions. It would not have achieved expungement on any level. This is not due to a lack of interest or good will on the part of those championing this and other bills. Legislators who support these bills and try to move them toward passage do understand that something must be done. But they are limited in what they can do, because they don’t see the public support for it going further.
In order to change this state of affairs, and give our legislators something to work with, we must begin now to build a base of public support that is too strong and too large and too loud to be ignored, and gives our champions in the legislature the ability to fight a better fight.
To do this will require a campaign waged on many levels, with community organizers, organized labor, faith-based groups and legal services programs coming together to help chip away at a warped public perception shaped by too many “true crime” shows, movies and biased news reports.
Because the sad truth is, a significant number of people across New York State do think that a person who has been convicted of a crime should face lifetime barriers, should be treated differently in the job market, should be denied admittance to college or a chance to rent an apartment, and should be barred from voting.
Only by changing minds will we be able to give our elected leaders the support they need to pass expungement legislation – legislation that will make a true difference for millions of New Yorkers now struggling to step past their convictions histories and move on with their lives.