Melinda Agnew has done a lot in the 25 years since she got in trouble with the law: She earned an associate degree, followed by a bachelor’s and a master’s. She had three children and recently became a grandmother.
Yet she walks around with a sense of unease.
“I still have this past that is behind me,” Ms. Agnew, 47, of Syracuse, N.Y., said, adding: “At any given moment, someone could come up and say, ‘Well, what happened in 1999?’”
Nothing good comes after this question. To answer it truthfully — she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault — is to be denied jobs she is otherwise qualified for and apartments she can afford to rent. To lie is to undercut the person she has fought so hard these past decades to become.
Lawmakers in Albany are considering legislation aimed at lifting that burden for Ms. Agnew and millions of others. Known as the Clean Slate Act, the bill would automatically seal the criminal records of people who have paid their debt to society and remained out of trouble for a specified number of years — three for misdemeanors, seven for most felonies.
The legislative effort has been gaining momentum for several years, with Gov. Kathy Hochul including a scaled-back version of the act in her agenda last year. The State Senate passed a more far-reaching version, but the bill died in the Assembly.
This year, Democratic leaders in the Legislature have signaled that passage is a priority before they recess in two weeks — especially for left-leaning lawmakers still stinging over losing ground this session on bail laws.
The effort, which has the backing of an unlikely coalition of local governments, unions, criminal justice groups and companies including Verizon and JP Morgan Chase, builds on an idea that has been gaining bipartisan acceptance: that the bias against hiring formerly incarcerated people has not only a social cost but an economic one.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group, released a report that estimated that excluding formerly incarcerated job seekers from the work force has cost the United States at least $78 billion in lost gross domestic product.
Ten states, including Oklahoma, Virginia and Utah, have passed legislation to automatically clear certain criminal records.
But not everyone supports the effort. In Albany, Republicans, including minority leaders in the Senate and Assembly, call the measure another liberal effort to decrease criminal accountability that will endanger New Yorkers.
Tony Jordan, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, is also opposed, saying that a move to automatically seal all records, including those of serious crimes, could cause more harm than good. He prefers the current approach, which allows individuals to ask a judge to seal their record, and argues for improvements to the current system, rather than a whole new dynamic.
“If our governmentally supported housing is discriminating against people because of their criminal history, we should look at that, because that’s not correct,” Mr. Jordan said. “The businesses that are supporting this? Well, my answer to them is you can hire folks now with a criminal history. They choose not to, because they want to avoid liability, but that’s on them.”
The timing of the bill will also present something of a challenge: There are just a handful of days left in the session for the Senate and Assembly to pass identical versions of the measure, which must be signed by the governor to become law.
Ms. Hochul has signaled support for the broad strokes of the bill but is also pushing to narrow its scope, according to three people familiar with discussions. In particular, she has expressed questions about when the clock should begin — when someone gets out of jail or when they complete parole — and which employers should have access to sealed records.
The current version contains a series of carve-outs: Drunk-driving convictions would remain visible to the Division of Motor Vehicles, for instance, as would the criminal records of people applying to join the police force or obtain a firearm permit.
All criminal records would remain accessible to police, prosecutors and judges for internal use, and sexual offenses, many of which require public registration, would be exempt.
All other crimes would be eligible for automatic sealing, so long as the individual had completed the full sentence, including parole, and the number of years prescribed in the bill had passed without the person committing another crime in New York.
The fact that the measure, which would in practice restrict the amount of information that employers have about their workers, has garnered such support in the business community is a testament to the work of the bill’s sponsors to incorporate feedback, says Kathryn Wilde, who leads the Partnership for New York City.
“The methodology by which the Clean Slate Act became something that everybody could support was different,” she said. “In other words, it was collaborative.”
Indeed, one of the key concessions to the business community is the provision that frees businesses to hire formerly incarcerated people without fear of incurring litigation, said Paul Zuber, the president of the Business Council.
He stressed that the legislation was crucial given the labor challenges New York is facing, saying: “This really isn’t a criminal justice bill; it’s an economic development, economic opportunity bill.”
Proponents say that the measure will have a cascade of beneficial effects for individuals as well as society. They point to a 2020 study from Harvard Law School, which found that on the whole, those whose records had been expunged tended to reoffend less and earn more.
“If you’re giving people the opportunity to actually have meaningful work, that can help them support their family — get a roof over their heads — you are reducing exponentially the reasons why recidivism even occurs,” said Catalina Cruz, the bill’s sponsor in the Assembly.
The Senate sponsor, Zellnor Myrie, says this notion of redemption lies at the heart of Clean Slate.
“When we talk about some of the more egregious offenses, ones that I think rightfully shock the conscience, we have also made a determination about how much of punishment that individual should receive for that,” Mr. Myrie said. “What we do not have on the books is perpetual punishment.”
He noted that offenses that include a provision of lifetime parole, like murder, would be ineligible for sealing.
Ms. Agnew was 17 when she drunkenly smashed another girl’s face with a bottle of Bacardi rum. She was sentenced to 60 days in jail and several years of probation, which she completed in 2003.
But she soon realized that the punishment for her crime was not over and never truly would be, lingering every time that she applied for a job, financial aid for school or a new apartment.
She tries to turn her lived experience into a benefit, helping advise the state on policies that can help families dealing with the justice system.
But she said she still awaits the day when she and others like her can really move on, unencumbered by a debt they have already paid. “That will be in history,” she said. “In the past.”