A long-debated bill to automatically seal the criminal records of millions of New Yorkers a certain period after their sentencing has passed both houses of the state Legislature for the first time.
Lawmakers voted to adopt the measure, which supporters call the Clean Slate Act, over the finish line at the last minute of an extended legislative session originally scheduled to end Thursday.
The bill would automatically seal criminal records three years after sentencing for a misdemeanor, and eight years after a person is released from prison for a felony conviction. It does not apply to class A felonies or crimes that required a person to register as a sex offender.
"People can change," sponsor Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, a Queens Democrat, said on the floor. "People can get better. People can repent. People can be forgiven. Our society should not be judged on the behavior of one member at its worst moment, but on our ability to forgive them and to grant them the ability to move forward and heal and to become productive members of our society."
A person's criminal records will be sealed after the required time if they are not on probation or parole, and have no other pending charges.
Police, courts and prosecutors would have access to the records as part of an investigation or to review a pistol application, as well as state agencies required to conduct a fingerprint-based background check for certain jobs.
About 1 in 7 New Yorkers have a conviction record, lawmakers say. It's estimated to impact more than 2 million people in the state.
Cruz has worked on and changed the legislation for several years, saying she consulted as many stakeholders as possible, including police, state and local officials, to get the bill over the finish line.
Assembly members narrowly voted late Friday afternoon to adopt the measure 83-64. Senators passed it in kind 38-25 just before 11 p.m., expecting to conclude session in the upper house for the year early Saturday morning.
"Seventy-three percent of the people convicted of a crime have not been convicted of a subsequent crime in 10 years," Sen. Jamaal Bailey said Friday night from the floor. "...But the sentence an individual receives is part of the dues they pay to society. The three or eight years they have to wait is part of the dues they pay to society. How much more do you want people to pay when they can't pay? It's not how many times you're knocked down, but it's how many times you get up. But if you're hloed to the floor for years and years, you can't rise."
It was an emotional vote for Assemblyman Eddie Gibbs — the first formerly incarcerated member of the state Legislature.
Gibbs, who spent 17 months on Rikers Island and four years in state prison following a manslaughter conviction, said on the Assembly floor that his story has been used by advocates pushing the bill.
"There's the conversation throughout the chambers regarding me, so I felt like a prop," he said. "But I'm proud to be a prop. If it's going to help these 2.3 million New Yorkers come home and re-enter society and do something good in their communities, use me."
The Senate has passed earlier versions of Clean Slate in previous sessions, but it has routinely stalled in the Assembly.
The passage of Clean Slate would make New York the 11th U.S. state to pass legislation to automatically seal criminal records.
The bill's fate will rest with Gov. Kathy Hochul, who must sign it into law by the end of the year. Hochul included a version of Clean Slate in her 2022 executive budget, but has struggled to reach an agreement with legislative leaders on timing to seal records.
The bill was amended earlier this week. Hochul on Tuesday said the Legislature's passage of Clean Slate was a top end-of-session priority, but she has to review the details.
"We're making good progress," she said. "...I think it's important for employers who are experiencing a severe shortage of workers, but we also have to be smart and find out our options."
The governor cited potential concerns about sealing New Yorkers' convictions from other states and victims of sexual assault, but refused to say if she will support the updated legislation or sign it as written.
Republican lawmakers have long pushed back on Clean Slate, warning it will impact public safety.
Many argued during floor debate they support the idea of sealing records of certain crimes, but the passed legislation goes too far.
Assemblyman John McGowan, a former special victims prosecutor in Bronx and Rockland counties, says there should be exceptions for other serious offenses like manslaughter, endangering the welfare of a child or armed robbery.
"People are entitled to a second chance, they certainly are, but what this legislation does is it creates a blanket opportunity for certain offenses that should not qualify for automatic sealing," said McGowan, a Pearl River Republican. "Victims of crime carry the scars and the wounds from what happened to them for the rest of their lives. They don't have an opportunity for a clean slate. ... It should require something from the defendant to take some action to go to court to go in front of a judge to apply for that sealing. It shouldn't be done automaticlly, it shouldn't be done at the cost or the burden of the state."
Republicans, who voted against the bill with several upstate Democrats, argue New Yorkers with a criminal record can already request past crimes be sealed in court, and the Clean Slate Act removes judicial discretion.
About 0.05% of people with a past conviction in the state have taken advantage of the opportunity to apply to have the record sealed, said Senate sponsor Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat from Brooklyn.
But momentum behind the legislation has built to remove barriers for people with past convictions to secure housing, job opportunities and start a new life.
"Now, they're free," said Sen. Robert Jackson, a Democrat from Manhattan. "And so they're free to try to do what's best for themselves and their families and to be a good citizen of our country. And that's a good thing."