By Shayna Jacobs
March 18, 2019
An East Harlem woman busted for a narcotics sale over 20 years ago has been paying the price all those years.
She's also earned degrees, survived cancer, volunteered for the Red Cross during Superstorm Sandy and was among the valiant people who searched for survivors at Ground Zero on 9/11.
Nancy, a 54-year-old mother of five, has worked hard to put her past behind her and will finally do it under a New York State statute that allows for criminal convictions to be sealed. She will soon become one of the few offenders eligible to benefit from that law, which took effect in October 2017.
Nancy pleaded guilty to a felony drug sale charge in 1998 in exchange 1 to 3 years behind bars. Freed after about six months on work release, she said she has not been able to hold down consistent employment because of her criminal record.
"The doors have been closed continuously and I'm sure it's not because of my experiences or my skills," Nancy told the Daily News. She spoke on the condition that her last name not be used.
Sealing her criminal record will make the conviction invisible to employers doing background checks. Although considering a job seeker's record is illegal in New York State, advocates say it is a common practice.
The Legal Aid Society's Case Closed Sealing Project handled Nancy's application to a Manhattan Supreme Court judge, and the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor has signed off on it.
A person applying for a record to be sealed must have no more than two convictions and only one can be a felony. Only nonviolent felonies are allowed.
Nancy hasn't let her struggle to hold down a job interfere with her community involvement. She rushed to Lower Manhattan on 9/11 from Harlem, where she had an administrative position at Metropolitan Hospital, and, she said, used her hospital credentials to bring water and supplies to first responders.
Then, for several days, she took part in the grueling effort to find survivors.
Since her service at the World Trade Center, Nancy has helped with disaster relief and volunteered at food pantries and hospitals, records submitted to the court show.
Last year, she earned a bachelor's degree in Health Services Administration from Lehman College.
She was awarded an associate degree in 2009 from Hostos Community College, attending classes despite battling lymphoma. Years before, she twice underwent spinal surgery that left her in pain and hindered her mobility.
Nancy says she had a cocaine habit when she was arrested at the age of 33. Her life since then has been free of the bad influences to which she subjected herself as a younger woman. "I want an opportunity to be seen for who I truly am," she wrote in her sealing application.
The sealing of her record is expected to be formalized this week.
"Nancy is a perfect example of someone who has done everything right since her conviction, but she continues to suffer," said Emma Goodman, the Legal Aid lawyer in charge of the program.
"We hope that lawmakers will recognize that there are many more people like Nancy out there who deserve to move on with their lives and will expand the law to make sealing more accessible."
Legal Aid has facilitated successful sealings for 55 people around the city, and about 150 others have applications in the works.
Officials estimated there were around 600,000 eligible applicants state-wide at the time the program was launched. Only about 800 cases had been sealed through the end of 2018, according to state statistics.
"I'm hoping I can get myself somewhere where I can contribute, where this time I get a paycheck," she said.