Law to seal old crime records improves lives
It was a petty crime — misdemeanor attempted assault, which Kawna says was an act of self-defense when another woman jumped her in the Bronx while she was eight months pregnant.
The stress sent her into early labor with her son, her first child, as she stood before the judge in court.
Finally, 25 years after her guilty plea, Kawna — who asked her full name not be used — is putting her crime behind her, with help from the Legal Aid Society and a yearold state law that will seal her record from potential employers.
The arrest “was the only trouble I ever had,” said Kawna. But it caused decades of problems for the 45-yearold mom of two.
Kawna moved to Virginia five years after the bust and juggled multiple low-paying jobs. She avoided job applications that involved background checks, “because I already know that I’m going to get denied.”
But her background was not a problem when Kawna got her current gig as a school bus driver. That’s because the decades-old conviction was sealed, with help of the Legal Aid Society’s Case Closed program, which helps low-income people get their records wiped clean.
Officials estimated last year 600,000 people could have their records sealed under New York’s law. But few have applied for the program. As of Aug. 31, records of 549 people have been sealed statewide.
Manhattan has the most sealings — 96 — followed by the Bronx at 44, Queens at 35 and Brooklyn at 29. Three cases in Staten Island have been sealed since Oct. 7, 2017, when the law was enacted.
Kawna is one of 29 Legal Aid Society clients whose sealings are official.
“For the few people that are getting their records sealed, the tangible and psychological impact of sealing has been life-changing,” said Emma Goodman, the lawyer who heads the Legal Aid Society project. “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.”
People asking to seal their New York criminal records must have no more than two convictions, only one of which is a felony. Both convictions must be at least 10 years old. Violent crimes and sex offenses are not eligible for the program.
State law prohibits employers from considering a candidate’s criminal history but advocates say it’s routine practice.
Another of Goodman’s clients, 52-year-old Richie, is a married dad of daughters, ages 27 and 16. He deeply regrets selling crack-cocaine in 1993 — in his words, he was “just being a knucklehead and doing something I should have been out there doing.
“The conviction does not represent who I am as a person and is a significant source of embarrassment in my life,” Richie wrote in his application, which was granted in Brooklyn Supreme Court.
Richie, a carpenter who has worked a variety of jobs, says he spends most of his time away from his kids in Delaware because it’s easier to get work in New York.
Dogged by his conviction, he became a life coach for Man Up! several years ago. He now warns young people about the headaches and heartbreak convictions can cause. “It will hold you back in so many ways,” he said.
“It’s easy to get in trouble and it’s hard to get out.”
Mark, a 41-year-old maintenance worker from Flatbush, has likewise been burdened by a DWI from 2007 and a petty larceny conviction 10 years before that.
The married dad of three daughters — whose oldest suffers from multiple sclerosis — believes he was denied a job at a hospital due to his record, which is now under seal.
“Now I can go out there and send my résumé to everybody and feel confident about it,” he said.