Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
January 15th, 2019
by Emma Goodman,
Staff Attorney with The Legal Aid Society's Special Litigation Unit
Jose was 16 when he was arrested in Brooklyn. He stole another kid’s bike. He and his friends were charged with robbery despite the fact that there were no weapons or injuries involved. His family didn’t know anything about the criminal system and his lawyer advised him to take a plea to a lower level charge to escape Rikers Island. Not understanding the consequences, he did.
Thirty-five years later, the weight of a non-violent felony conviction still hangs over his head.
Jose is an adult now with a wife and two children. He never went to college or applied for the jobs he wanted because he was afraid his conviction would prevent him from reaching his goals. He has been working tirelessly as a driver for his entire adult life. Finally, in 2018, he was able to get his record sealed. He is now applying for night school, and he and his family have new hope for the future.
When it comes to record sealing, Jose is one of the lucky ones. He fits the restrictive eligibility requirements of a new state record-sealing law that was passed in 2017, and he happened to read the Daily News on the day an article about the statute was published.
But the law is too limited to benefit the people who are suffering the most, and many of the few who can benefit don’t know that the law was passed. These are problems we need to fix, now.
New laws mean nothing if the people who can benefit don’t know they exist. The record-sealing law, which seals records for a number of adult criminal convictions if certain conditions are met, could potentially benefit as many as 600,000 people statewide. But it has seen fewer than 1,000 people benefit in over a year; that’s less than 1% of the people who are eligible.
There are many reasons for this disparity. The eligibility determination and judicial process are extremely complicated and difficult to do without an attorney’s help. The value of sealing records is unclear to many, and misinformation is being spread by private attorneys and online companies for profit.
But the biggest reason for the low numbers is the government’s failure to educate the public. Time and time again we, as legal advocates, see huge, self-congratulatory media splashes about new laws and benefits meant to help the community. But once the laws go into effect, the government goes basically silent.
At the Legal Aid Society, we’ve tried through a myriad of ways to spread the word to the community. With every newspaper article, television segment and public event, we reach more people like Jose. But why has this work been left just to community advocates?
Why hasn’t there been more publicity? We haven’t seen any billboards or subway posters, heard advertisements over the radio or seen them on television. What about more flyers at community centers and better local outreach? The numbers are low because the outreach just isn’t there.
In addition to better follow-through from Albany, there is huge room for improvement in the law. In order to truly redress the systemic wrongs of broken-windows policing, we should expand it to allow people with more than two convictions to apply for sealing. We should also reduce the wait time below 10 years and make the process more accessible for people to apply on their own without the needed help from an attorney.
The law as it stands is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough to truly help those suffering under the weight of criminal records. I hope that the Albany of 2019 will do better.
Goodman is Case Closed project coordinator at the Legal Aid Society.