New York Daily News
People deserve clean slates
With vaccination rates across the country picking up, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is on the horizon for many, and experts are predicting an economic boom. But for some — particularly in Black and Latino communities hit hardest by the pandemic — obstacles to a full recovery remain. Pandemic recovery efforts must take into consideration that hundreds of thousands of people in New York City, most of whom are from historically disadvantaged groups, are struggling under the weight of criminal convictions that limit their opportunities for employment, professional licensing and housing. At a time when public attitudes and law enforcement priorities are shifting, it’s incumbent upon lawmakers to turn their attention toward the impacts of conviction records.
New research from the Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ), which provides the first comprehensive accounting of criminal convictions in New York City, found that there were 3,354,166 criminal convictions between 1980 and 2019. More than three-quarters of these convictions were for misdemeanors, and onethird were related to drugs. As a result, nearly 750,000 people have criminal records, and this group is overwhelmingly Black and Brown. Further, 40% of people with criminal records have just a single conviction on their record — and for roughly two-thirds of the people with conviction records, their most recent conviction is more than 10 years old.
For the 750,000 people with criminal conviction records in New York City, the path to economic stability after the pandemic is complicated by the consequences of a criminal conviction record. For example, a person seeking work as a security guard may be denied a license if previously convicted of certain drug offenses. In New York City, landlords can refuse to rent homes to anyone who has ever been convicted, no matter how minor the offense or how long ago it occurred.
The federal government even restricted some people with criminal records from receiving funds aimed at helping small business owners survive the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic. These barriers add up to a lifetime of reduced economic opportunity; one recent study found that people convicted of a felony have their annual earnings reduced by 22% and for misdemeanors by 16%.
People convicted of lower-level offenses and drug crimes carry these burdens despite changing perspectives about whether the offenses on their records should be criminalized. New York’s recent decision to legalize marijuana and expunge convictions for conduct that is now legal will help some of the 81,000 people that have only drug convictions on their records. However, even as other states have started to legalize or expunge a broader set of drug convictions, New Yorkers with convictions related to drugs other than marijuana will continue to face the challenges associated with a criminal record — even if their convictions are very old or they were suffering from substance misuse or mental health issues when they were arrested.
For turnstile jumping, an offense for which attitudes have also shifted significantly, the story is similar. After public officials, including local district attorneys, identified it as a crime of poverty, criminal enforcement declined dramatically — from 25,500 arrests in 2011 to 6,500 arrests in 2018 in New York City. Yet roughly 192,000 past convictions for turnstile jumping in New York City continue to follow people.
These shifts in attitudes and enforcement beg a number of questions, including: Should a person who has already faced punishment continue to pay social and economic costs associated with their convictions? Moreover, should their children, families, and communities continue to bear the burden of these records?
Some state legislatures — such as in Michigan, New Jersey and Massachusetts — have taken steps to reduce the burdens associated with a criminal conviction through “clean slate” laws. It pays real dividends: In Michigan, people who had their convictions cleared earned 22% more than those who still had criminal records a year after expungement. Similarly, New York state Sen. Zellnor Myrie recently introduced a bill that will automatically clear a New Yorker’s criminal record once they become eligible.
Conviction records are a lasting vestige of the War on Drugs and broken windows policing; they linger for decades even as people attempt to move on with their lives and cultural attitudes and enforcement priorities shift. These records function as perpetual punishment for those who have already served their time, weighing down communities of color. As policymakers in New York continue to consider legislation to reform our criminal legal system and alleviate the harm wrought by the pandemic, people with criminal convictions must be lifted up, not left behind.