Many of the arguments regarding quality of life in New York cover two important topics: affordability and public safety. The former issue is one that has plagued New Yorkers for decades, while the latter has seen some relatively new developments that have been the subject of much debate and controversy.
Albany Democrats have been consistent in their criminal justice reforms since forming a trifecta in 2018. In 2019, the controversial “Cashless Bail” reform laws were signed, lessening bail requirements and removing many forms of judicial authority in retaining criminals based on public safety concerns. Afterwards came the “Raise the Age” laws, which prevents teens under eighteen years of age from being charged as adults. Finally, the “Less is More Act” was introduced to expedite and overhaul parole time accrual.
Now, Governor Kathy Hochul (D) has signed the latest measure in New York criminal justice reform: the “Clean Slate” Act.
The act institutes an automatic sealing of criminal records for many offenses within certain time periods depending on the crime. Eligible misdemeanor convictions will be sealed three years after release, while eligible felonies will be sealed eight years after release. Both are contingent on the condition that criminals do not commit additional crimes during the intervening period.
Eligible crimes include: manslaughter, vehicular homicide (DWI-related crash causing death), vehicular assault (DWI-related crash causing serious physical injury), gun felonies, most kidnappings (excluding First Degree kidnapping and offenses in which the victim is less than seventeen and the offender is not a parent), gang assaults, assaults on police officers, attempted murder in the Second Degree, some terrorism offenses, residential burglaries, armed robbery, domestic violence felonies, threatening or intimidating witnesses, hate crimes (excluding Class-A felonies), felony DWI for repeat offenses, animal abuse, and arson (excluding First Degree).
Long Island leaders gathered at the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association (PBA) Headquarters in Brentwood Friday morning to further voice their opposition to the new laws. The press conference was headlined by Senator Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue).
“If you do the math, this bill was signed nine days after an election. In that election, voters were very, very clear in their message: they want public safety,” said Murray. “They don’t like the pro-criminal policies coming out of Albany. They overwhelmingly elected a county executive [Ed Romaine] who was endorsed by all law enforcement and campaigned on public safety. And just nine days after that message was sent, their message back: ‘So what? We have an agenda and we’re going to stick to it.’”
County Executive-Elect Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) then took the podium to highlight that such a system for sealing records already exists, one with judicial authority instead of automatic sealing.
“Is there a place for Clean Slate in the criminal justice system? Sure, there are examples where that should be allowed, but should that be automatic? Should it be carte blanche, or should it be subject to judicial discretion?” said Romaine. “I think it should be up to the judges. I think this bill is not right, and I think it does weaken the criminal justice system in that we are not holding people accountable. I don’t think this legislation will serve us well in the long-run.”
Senator Murray reinforced Executive-Elect Romaine’s words while also highlighting the fallacies surrounding the bill’s integrity:
“You can currently, without Clean Slate, apply through the judicial system to have your records sealed,” said Murray. “It happens now, but on a case-by-case basis, and that’s exactly how it should be done. But carte blanche clean slate for everyone is just plain dangerous. One of the fallacies being sold in pitching this is ‘This is the only way, if you don’t support this, you don’t’ believe in second chances.’ That’s just not true.”
Murray then listed some of the aforementioned crimes that are eligible for automatic sealing under the law.
“The other fallacy is that violent crimes don’t get sealed. Many of these crimes sound pretty violent to me and those will all be sealable,” said Murray.”
Senator Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick (R-Malverne) came out from Nassau County to stand in opposition to the bill.
“Manslaughter is now a sealable offense. That includes someone who could have been convicted of murder, whose charge was plea bargained down to manslaughter,” said Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick. “Hate crimes are also sealable, which is a problem given what we have going on right now with antisemitism. Where do the victims get a clean slate? Where do the families of someone who is murdered get a clean slate? That never goes away. Why are the criminals being prioritized? I hope that we can amend this in some way, but the damage is going to be done just like we’ve seen with bail reform. We will have to wait for the tragedies to happen as a result of this.”
Assemblyman Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) helped echo some bipartisan opposition to the bill.
“Like all of my colleagues, we believe in second chances, and we understand that there is a system in place that works and is set up to strike the right balance,” said Stern. “But here, this is just another example of a potential positive that goes way too far. It does not take into account real-world impact and we see a one-size-fits-all method that can ultimately turn dangerous for so many. With these kinds of very troubling crimes, we believe that all – employees, employers, victims, and families, have a right to know.”
Assemblyman Ed Flood (R-Port Jefferson Station) highlighted a separate class of criminals: those in organized and white-collar crime.
“Right now, we’re in an epidemic of overdoses,” said Flood. “This bill will allow drug dealers with the title of “kingpin” moving millions of dollars in weight to have their records sealed. We also have people who have been in Ponzi schemes, who have stolen millions of dollars from our elderly citizens.”
Senator Murray then touched on a sobering subject: safety of children.
“Schools and daycares will still have access to records,” said Murray. “But what about toy stores, Chuck E. Cheese, Splish Splash, or even a babysitter in your own home? You won’t have access to those records; you won’t know.”
Lou Civello, President of the Suffolk PBA, commented on how the act further curtails the ability of police officers to do their jobs. He called Albany “hypocritical,” referencing their 2020 repeal of 50-a, a law that required the concealment of disciplinary records of police officers and other first responders.
“This reckless law is yet another blow to cooperating with police officers. They couldn’t defund us, so now they’re trying to demoralize us to the point that we cannot police effectively,” said Civello. “Just a short time ago, this same group of elected officials who passed this law repealed 50-a. In cases where people make false complaints against police officers, where gang members and thugs make things up in order to stop police from doing their jobs, Albany said: ‘Those false complaints, we can’t seal those. Those false complaints are going to be held against you forever.’ But what does Albany say to the criminal, the person who maims a child or mugs your family member on the subway? ‘We can make it like it never happened.’ We should forgive when you paid your debt to society, but we forget [offenses] at our own peril.”
Jennifer Harrison, Founder and Executive Director of Victims’ Rights New York shared her heartbreaking story of how her boyfriend Kevin was brutally murdered by three people in January 2005 and the circumstances leading to their lean punishments that allow them to remain free today.
“My life was completely destroyed. Today would have been Kevin’s forty-seventh birthday, and instead of being home making fun of each other for getting old, I am here because somebody has to explain to our governor and the merry band of idiots in Albany that sealing the records of violent criminals is wrong,” said Harrison. “Kevin had three killers; two of them got away with it. One of them pleaded guilty to manslaughter. First, I had to accept that my loved one is gone forever. Then I had to process that another human being intentionally horrifically took his life. Then I had to accept the outcome of the case, manslaughter – not murder – only for one offender, and a very lenient [punishment]. The people who did this to my family and the love of my life are now free with their families posting pictures on social media and spending holidays together. Not only is this another kick in the gut, but it is a huge risk to public safety.”
The Messenger caught up with Lou Civello after the press conference for his thoughts on the best solutions in combatting the effects of this bill.
“I think some of these politicians only understand one thing and that’s whether or not they’re going to have a job after Election Day,” said Civello. “People need to vote and pay attention. We had elected officials from both parties here today. They put victims and Long Island first; they share our values. There are some who are not here and we need to hold them accountable on Election Day, otherwise this is never going to change. Their foot is hot on the gas and Bail Reform was an epic failure by any objective measure. They could have started [Clean Slate] with very low-level crimes, such as shoplifting. Instead, they seal everything and say ‘we’ll see how this works out, maybe some people get killed, and if they do, then we’ll repeal.’ It’s not a proper way to govern.”
Regarding the Suffolk Police Department’s response to the signing of the reforms, Civello says they will have to be “diligent to ensure nothing slips through the cracks on offenses that aren’t supposed to be sealed.”
“We have to make sure that we [law enforcement] have access that we’re supposed to,” said Civello. “When it comes to government, things get lost in the shuffle, and I’d hate to see a tragedy as a result of it.”
The bill was passed in the Assembly 85-65 with three absences. Of the Suffolk delegation, Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor), Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), and Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights) are the only members of the Assembly who voted to approve it.
In the Senate, the bill passed 37-25 with one absence. None of the Suffolk delegation voted to approve it.