As criminal justice advocates celebrate Thursday's signing of the Clean Slate Act to seal New Yorkers' past criminal records, Republican lawmakers and some prosecutors are raising concerns about its potential consequences.
Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the Clean Slate Act into law Thursday morning at the Brooklyn Museum. The long-debated legislation will automatically seal a person's criminal records three years after the end of the prison sentence for a misdemeanor, and eight years for most felony records.
The clock starts after person is off probation or parole, and does not apply to people convicted of sex crimes, murder or other violent class A felonies.
"I'm so proud... to sign the Clean Slate Act and give businesses the help they need, give millions of New Yorkers the second chance they deserve," Hochul said minutes before she signed the legislation. "It's a victory for anyone who wants to make sure that our communities are safe and vibrant."
Police, prosecutors, court officials, the state Education Department and other relevant employers will still have access to sealed records.
The law will take effect in one year, automatically sealing the records of at least 2.3 million New Yorkers.
The Business Council of New York State and other business leaders backed the bill amid the ongoing staffing shortage in all industries.
"This helps us get 2 million people who otherwise are not able to work actually being productive members of society," Hochul told reporters after the event. "We took extraordinary measures to ensure that individuals who have been convicted a very serious crimes, like murders and sex crimes, and rapes, domestic terrorism and others in this very specific category, are not eligible for the Clean Slate opportunity."
Records will be available for criminal investigations, issuing an order of protection for employers as they vet potential workers who would directly deal with children or the elderly and require a background check.
Lawmakers and activists alike argue it will help formerly incarcerated people secure employment, housing and education and boost the state's economic development.
"We're gonna start breaking that cycle of poverty and injustice that has been perpetrated by a criminal justice system that was designed to do exactly what it's doing right now: To keep people eternally under its thumb, and changing generations to come," said bill sponsor Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, a Queens Democrat. "As a society, we should be judged on our ability to give strength to the downtrodden, to empower the disenfranchised, to give justice to the invisible and forgive those who seek redemption."
It's unclear the political impact new criminal justice reforms will have in the state, as public safety concerns particularly mobilized New York voters to the polls in 2022. Multiple lawmakers have said they held off passing Clean Slate until a non-election year to avoid Democrats — who secured a veto-proof supermajority in 2020 — from losing its significant control of the Legislature.
All members of the Legislature are up for reelection in 2024.
But some elected officials say they're concerned about Clean Slate's impact on public safety. The bill's sharpest critics take issue with the bill sealing records for violent crimes like manslaughter, assault, burglary, strangulation and others that are not Class A felonies.
Republican lawmakers swiftly blasted Hochul for signing the law, saying it will impact New York's public safety.
"Everyone in my conference and myself believe there should be second chances in life, but we also believe in common sense in the criminal justice system, and not by sealing people's criminal records," Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said Thursday. "...If people want to hire convicted felons, there's nothing stopping them from hiring convicted felons. The concern is this, seals all criminal records so you can't tell what their background is."
He cited arguments against the legislation that Suffolk County District Attorney Raymond Tierney, a Republican, made Thursday about people who hire private in-home caretakers.
"If you're hiring someone to take care of your elderly parents, you would think you'd want to know if they've been involved in robbery, burglary, gang assaults," said Barclay, a Republican from Pulaski. "Those are the types of crimes that would be sealed under this Clean Slate bill."
In the last few years, lawmakers spoke with prosecutors like Albany County District Attorney David Soares for input about how to change the bill and get it over the legislative finish line.
Soares, a Democrat, says prosecutors helped influence significant changes to the legislation, including allowing police and the courts to access records, but added the carve outs for certain officials, employers and state agencies aren't enough.
"Employers and other people will not be able to see who it is that they're hiring, so you're putting a lot of employers in peril," he said in the Capitol on Thursday. "If you're a parent who's looking for child care, you may be hiring someone who has had a violent past, and you just don't know it."
New York City Councilman-elect Yusef Salaam, a Democrat, is an exonerated member of the Central Park Five — or five men who had their convictions overturned for raping and beating a white jogger in the park in 1989.
He says Clean Slate will help people convicted of minor offenses, and people wrongfully convicted like him who are unable to get their name cleared.
"This is a great opportunity for them to have a way forward," Salaam said. "If you've been doing the work to restore yourself, we're going to give you the chance that you need to have hope. ...There are countless individuals who don't have my story, so this gives them an opportunity to have not only a future, but a bright future — a future that ripples into their future generations."