Locked in, locked out: Re-entry after incarceration and the Clean Slate Act
(WBNG) - As many as one in three Americans have a criminal record. That’s according to a survey done by the Department of Justice.
Those who have been through the system, along with people who work with those formerly incarcerated, describe that with a criminal record comes barriers, particularly when it comes to housing and employment.
Jeff Pryor is the Director of re-entry services for Broome County.
“98 percent of the people who go to prison and jail are eventually coming home,” said Pryor.
For a decade he’s been helping people make a better life after incarceration. The re-entry program helps address a number of things from acquiring housing, exploring educational opportunities, getting assistance for alcohol, drug, or other substance-related issues, finding a job, and much more.
“If we don’t do something to help them start their lives over and reestablish and put the money and resources back in our community we’re just pushing ourselves backward,” said Pryor.
But as Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson describes, there is only so much someone can do when they still wear ‘paper handcuffs’.
“When you are formally incarcerated and you have to fill out a job application and you have to indicate that you have been convicted or you have a criminal background those are paper handcuffs,” said Johnson.
Those who have been through the system said that describes the situation perfectly.
“You can’t escape your record. It’s always there,” said Seth who back in 2011 was at the height of his addiction.
“My heroin addiction spiraled so quickly out of control that it was costing hundreds of dollars a day to feed the addiction,” said Seth.
He was convicted of burglary and grand larceny, leaving him with a felony record. After completing drug court and probation he got used to hearing one answer when applying for jobs.
“I got denied,” said Seth, “I mean I had a degree and a good work history, but once you click the box that you’re a felon the chances of getting a call back are slim to none.”
And Seth is not alone. The ACLU estimates, nationally, excluding individuals with a conviction history from the workforce costs the economy between $78-$87 billion in lost domestic product.
“Why would we continually punish them because they went to prison 15 years ago have been out of prison for 12 years now to judge them against their past,” said Pryor.
A law passed in 2017, CLP-160, allows for the sealing of criminal records if they meet certain qualifications.
“There are currently two subdivisions of the criminal procedure law which allow for sealing of records in certain situations,” said Broome County Public Defender Mike Baker, “One allows for sealing to occur after you have successfully completed a judicially sanctioned drug program. The other provision is where someone has been crime-free for 10 years since their last conviction when they’re off parole or probation you can apply for sealing in those instances.”
However, Baker said going through this can be a lengthy and costly process.
“There are a lot of intricate parts that you have to file,” said Baker, “Plus you need access to the courts to file the proper motions to reply to the DA’s decision.”
Of those currently eligible in New York, he said about 1%-5% go through the process.
“In our experience sometimes it’s taken many months to create one of these motions,” said Baker, “Moreover because of the pandemic the courts are so far behind that it takes a long time for these motions to get decided.”
That is why advocates across the state including here in the Southern Tier demand more be done.
Baker said the Clean Slate Act would streamline the process so many of the steps he just described would happen automatically.
The legislation as it stands, Senate Bill 1553, would seal conviction records after three years for misdemeanor and seven years for felonies.
Excluded would be people convicted of a sex offense, anyone currently on probation or parole supervision, and those with pending state criminal charges.
“When folks come home from incarceration they’re still going to have to serve their post-release supervision and sentence, but the Clean Slate Act says after a specific number of years with no law enforcement interaction at all, you can have your record sealed,” said Pryor, “That sealing shields you from the general background checks that an employer would do.”
“Sealing a record means the conviction is still there,” said Baker, “Imagine it’s just hiding behind a curtain, only certain people can look behind the curtain.”
“Now someone might say ‘Well I want to know if they’ve been incarcerated because that might affect my company,’ We can get our men and women bonded through the Department of Labor,” said Pryor, “So if they are working for you that bonding is now the responsible component to make you feel safe that they’re not going to do anything to your business and if they do you’re going to have it taken care of.”
The Clean Slate legislation has been met with resistance in Albany.
State Senator Fred Akshar said while we need to help re-integrate people after incarceration, he has some concerns stating:
However, Baker said these legal definitions become complicated.
“A lot of what is considered a violent crime is not in fact violent,” said Baker.
He described a scenario in which an addict breaks into a family member’s home, when they know they are not there, to steal medication.
“They’re not committing any violence,” said Baker, “But under the law that could be considered a burglary 2nd, a violent crime.”
Rev. Dr. Johnson said this legislation would benefit communities of color who have been disproportionately affected.
“We’ve all made mistakes, all of us,” said Johnson, “Unfortunately for and particularly for black and brown communities those mistakes are amplified. If this act is passed, those paper handcuffs will be gone. That means thousands of people who were not able to get jobs and provide for themselves and their family will be able to.”
“A lot of people end up in the criminal justice system because of toxic relationships where they’re being forced into doing something that they don’t want to do or the power of addiction makes people do things they wouldn’t ever do before,” said Baker.
Now about a decade since his conviction, Seth has had his record sealed.
“It allows me and my wife to easily stay employed to provide for both of our children,” said Seth.
“It’s something that is powerful, it’s redemptive,” said Johnson, “It offers redemptive powers to people who really really want to turn their lives around.”
“I’m going to ask people to keep an open mind.” said Baker, “Think of the loved one in their lives that made a mistake and came back and extrapolate that to the rest of society. We can do this we can be better.”
“I truly believe people can change,” said Pryor, “But if we don’t give them the opportunity to change it is not going to happen.”
Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo said she contacted the sponsor of the bill who said it’s in the process of being amended before the next legislative session.
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