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Supporters of legislation that would automatically seal the criminal records of most individuals after they have completed their sentence gathered in Ossining last Thursday to press state lawmakers to pass the bill.
The campaign for the Clean Slate Act held several rallies around the state last Thursday, including in Ossining in front of Hudson Link, an organization that assists former prisoners with employment and education, to drive home their point a month before the new legislative session opens in Albany.
Advocates of the Clean Slate initiative argued that many employers, landlords and other entities use background checks and often eliminate those with a criminal record from consideration. Former convict Roberto Ramos, who helped lead the rally in Ossining, said while New York does a good job in its rehabilitation program in jail, many former prisoners have trouble when they are released because of a lack of access to a job, housing and even trade licenses.
“It doesn’t matter how good they are, it doesn’t matter the skills they provide, they say no, you can’t get it because of something that you did years back,” said Ramos, who was released in February after serving 25 years. “There’s no change, no rehabilitation, it is just continuing punishment. This bill will make a difference.”
The proposed law will automatically clear a person’s conviction record once they become eligible. As many as 2.3 million New Yorkers have a criminal record, Ramos said.
Supporters also argued it hurts the economy because many of those people are unable to find work. Furthermore, it disproportionately impacts people of color, they said.
Earlier this year during the 2022 session, the state Senate passed its version of the bill but its has languished in the Assembly.
Ossining Supervisor and Assemblywoman-elect Dana Levenberg and Assemblyman Chris Burdick (D-Bedford) attended the rally and voiced their support for the measure. Without that protection, ex-convicts are unable to fully rejoin society and the chance of recidivism increases, Levenberg said.
“The Clean Slate Act gives previously incarcerated people who served their time a fighting chance to have access to education, to get out of poverty, to have a chance to support their families and have a chance for good jobs, good paying jobs and also for safe housing,” Levenberg said. “Those, we know, are the bedrock of strong communities. We need to make sure we get this Clean Slate Act passed right out of the gate. We can’t wait any longer.”
She and Burdick vowed to push the bill for a vote in the upcoming 2023 session.
The current system also doesn’t make distinctions between shorter or longer sentences. Alfred Roberts served a 42-day sentence and faces obstacles similar to those of his fellow former convicts who completed longer prison terms.
Because of those hurdles, Roberts said there is a feeling of doom among some prisoners who have their release pending unless they have support from family and organizations such as Hudson Link.
“Without this Clean Slate Act, there is a lack of hope that we have on the inside because we don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring once we get out,” Roberts said. “Will I be able to find employment? Will I be able to get housing, and with the Clean Slate Act, we’ll be able to do that.”
Michigan’s Sealing Act that is currently in effect is very similar to the Clean Slate Act and it has resulted in an 11 percent increase in employment of former prisoners and a 25 percent growth in earnings, Ramos said.
Nada Khader, executive director of WESPAC, a peace and justice action organization, said the legislation is a moral issue that must be addressed.
“Our current system punishes people perpetually, defines that person based on that one moment they made a bad decision or they did something wrong,” Khader said. “That’s immoral, to define a whole person’s life for that one act.”