New York Sealing Bill Update: No Action on Senate Bill 5385-2013
It could be your niece or nephew. Or even your son or daughter. It might even have been you, many years ago. Good people make dumb mistakes, especially when they’re young. Maybe a neighbor’s mailbox is intentionally damaged. Maybe an item is stolen from a high-end department store. Maybe a small quantity of marijuana is shared among a group of college students. Any of these situations can result in the filing of criminal charges. The convicted offender may be sentenced to pay fines, perform community service, complete a term of supervised probation, or even serve jail time. Society’s debt must be paid, but at some point all aspects of the court matter are finished and the person is expected to re-enter productive life. It isn’t so easy.
A conviction is often a permanent bar to opportunity, hindering education, employment, licensing, and housing. Unlike neighboring states, New York does not offer a mechanism by which most people convicted of non-violent crimes can have their records expunged. The societal result is a growing population of underemployed or otherwise permanently disadvantaged young people whose dreams can never be realized.
Senator Lee Zeldin (http://www.nysenate.gov/senator/lee-m-zeldin) introduced a bill to take a first step toward second chances for minor offenders who have changed their lives. Bill number S5385 was “An act to amend the criminal procedure law and the executive law, in relation to permitting the sealing of records of certain nonviolent misdemeanor or non-sexual misdemeanor offenses.” It was entitled “The Second Chance for Ex-Offenders Act” (http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/S5385-2013).
The bill was modest in scope, limited to a select list of misdemeanors, youthful offender adjudications and non-criminal offenses. Felony offenders and career criminals were completely excluded from the bill’s reach (for more information on the bill’s highlights, see [link to prior blog on the bill]). Although the bill was less expansive than the recommendations on sealing of the New York State Bar Association, it was a great step forward and would help many deserving people.
Regrettably, despite hard work by Senator Zeldin and his staff, the 2013 Regular Legislative session came to a close on the morning of Saturday, June 22. In the end, the Legislature passed 650 bills during the 2013 session, but without S5385 becoming the law of the State. Although no action was taken on the sealing bill during this session, there are reasons to be optimistic that the bill has a good shot at success when Senator Zeldin introduces it again in the next session. There is a growing perception that something must be done to help people re-enter productive society after a conviction. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has created a Task Force on Restoration of Rights and Status After Conviction. I recently attended hearings in New York held by the Task Force in which numerous witnesses testified as to the collateral consequences of criminal convictions and the need for remedies. Also, the New York State Bar Association has recently appointed a Special Committee on Re-entry to investigate and advise on needed policies. I am honored to have been appointed to the Special Committee.
During the coming months while the Legislature is not in session, I will continue to work on the State Bar’s Special Committee and the Criminal Justice Section’s Sealing Committee, as well as to assist Senator Zeldin and other key people connected to this issue, so that second chances for deserving people become a reality in New York State.
I will keep you apprised of developments as this initiative moves forward.