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Very Few Have Taken Advantage of New York’s Program to Seal Criminal Records

by Ed Lyon

Some of the lines to one of late country music singer Merle Haggard’s famous hit songs were about a “branded man, out in the cold.” He was lamenting that no one would hire him because he had done time in prison.

This is all too familiar a problem many decades after the Hag so eloquently stated that he had “paid the debt I owed em’ and they’re still not satisfied.”

Times-they-are-a-changin’ for today’s branded men and women—at least in some jurisdictions.

In 2017, New York’s legislature enacted a law whereby its citizens may now petition to have their prior criminal records sealed. There are a few limitations, though. For instance, no sex offenses or violent crimes are eligible for the records-sealing program. The rest of the offenses that are eligible must be at least 10 years old from the date of conviction, and the procedure covers no more than two convictions—recidivists may still be branded, out in the cold.

One beneficiary of the sealing law, Kawna (last name withheld by request) was in her eighth month of her pregnancy when she was attacked over a decade ago and forced to defend herself. She was nevertheless arrested and charged with misdemeanor-level attempted assault. For many years, she eked out an existence by working menial, low-paying jobs—managing to work more than one of them at a time. After the records-sealing law passed, Kawna sought and received help from the Legal Aid Society’s Case Closed program. With her record cleared, she was hired as a bus driver.

It is estimated that some 600,000 New Yorkers are eligible to have their criminal records sealed. Sadly, only 549 of them have availed themselves of the opportunity prior to September 1, 2018. That amounts to a paltry .09 percent of eligible participants. The Legal Aid Society records-sealing project’s chief attorney, Emma Goodman, stated: “For the few people that are getting their records sealed the tangible and psychological impact of sealing has been life changing. It’s just incredible to see for the people that can benefit from this how different their lives can be so quickly after their records are sealed.”

It’s time for the remaining 599,451 New Yorkers who’ve paid their debt to think about taking New York up on its offer to seal their records. 


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