Thursday, March 24, 2011

New York to Convicts: Out of Jail, But Out of Work

Many people think of New York as a state of progressive politics and liberal ideals.  In some areas this is true, but in criminal justice policy, New York's laws do not convey a consistent policy that focuses on rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders into society. On one hand, we have substantially reformed the Rockefeller drug laws, created very effective specialized courts (though only in select areas of the state), and are beginning to adopt more comprehensive strategies to treat and rehabilitate offenders who are going back into society.  On the other hand, we have not addressed some of the most significant boundaries that offenders face in reintegration.  Our legislation has been piecemeal rather than comprehensive, and we have failed to address major barriers to reemployment for ex-offenders.

While there may be many factors that lead to unsuccessful reintegration, such as drug addiction, lack of social support, and lack of job skills, we clearly have done little to make it easy for ex-offenders to gain meaningful employment in the community.  As many of us know, even people with advanced degrees have difficulty finding jobs in the current economic climate, so imagine how difficult it is to find a job when you have to explain a criminal conviction. Short of a pardon by the Governor, New York has no mechanism for vacating a conviction based on the length of time passed since a conviction, the nature of a offense, or rehabilitation. In New York, a 60 year-old man with a larceny conviction from when he was 20 years-old will have to disclose such conviction upon request in every job application he files.  And while it is generally illegal not to hire someone simply for having a criminal record, most people who apply for a job have little ability to determine why they were not hired, nor do they have the resources to pursue their rights in the dark while fighting to find meaningful jobs and to support their families.

New York should join other states and pass legislation that allows convictions to be sealed or expunged after some period of time, perhaps a shorter period for misdemeanors and a longer period for non-violent felonies. Such legislation should allow ex-offenders to apply to an administrative agency, such as DCJS or a local probation department, that would review applications for evidence of rehabilitation and allow District Attorneys to object where appropriate. Such determinations could be appealed in court by either side. This would provide a process for ex-offenders to restore their rights, including the right to vote for some felons, and to be competitive in applying for jobs. The current policy, by placing barriers in front of ex-offenders, increases the chances that such individuals will reoffend (at a cost to all of us) and increases the likelihood that the cycle of poverty will continute in certain families and communities.

As of 2006, forty states allowed expungement or sealing of arrests not leading to conviction, and twenty-nine permitted an individual to deny the arrest. Sixteen states allowed expungement or sealing of convictions, and thirteen permitted an individual to deny the conviction. Ben Geiger, The Case for Treating Ex-Offenders as a Suspect Class, 94 Cal. L. Rev. 1191, 1200 (2006).  There have been proposals for such legislation in New York but none of have been passed.  All New York has is a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities process, which prevents certain automatic bars to some employment and licenses, but does nothing to prevent a potential employer from learning of a conviction in the first place.  It is time for New York to get in front of this issue and become a leader in fully integrating ex-offenders in our communities.

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