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There's GOP blowback to Clean Slate law

new york state capitol at night
Matt Ryan
/
New York NOW
The New York state Capitol building at night.

Governor Kathy Hochul signed the measure known as Clean Slate this week. It allows New Yorkers who have been convicted of some crimes and who have served their time to have their records sealed, in order to get jobs and public housing. But there is already backlash from Republicans in the state legislature.

The law allows records to be sealed for misdemeanors and many felonies, once the person has served their time. Hochul said she views it as a crime prevention measure, because it enables people to restart their lives, and to be less likely to return to crime. As many as two million New Yorkers are expected to be affected.

“I believe that if someone has served their debt to society, and the option is to be on the street committing more crimes, or sitting in an office, or at a worksite with a good paying job to support their families, I will choose that individual to be gainfully employed and, and continue to contribute to society,” said Hochul, “versus being on the street.”

The Clean Slate law still allows police, day care centers, and nursing homes access to the criminal records, in order to do background checks. Sex offenders are not eligible for Clean Slate and Class A felonies including murder, terrorism, kidnapping and possession of large amounts of illegal drugs are also excluded, according to the governor.

“So whether it's a judge looking to issue an order of protection and weigh the evidence and the history, whether it's a prosecutor, a police officer, or even an employer at a school or a place where background checks are customary,” said Hochul, “all of those areas are off limits.”

The law is backed by business groups, including the state’s Business Council and the New York City Partnership, as well as the major labor unions.

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But Republicans in the state legislature say the measure goes too far and will only contribute to a crime spike that’s been occurring in recent years.

In a statement, Senate GOP Leader Robert Ortt said the law allows for “criminals convicted of some of the most violent offenses,” including hate crimes, to have their records sealed, during a time when there’s rising antisemitism. Ortt said the victims of crimes and their families do not get a “Clean Slate.”

Senator Dean Murray, a Republican from Long Island, was among those at a press conference opposing the new law.

Murray said without the law, people convicted of crimes could appeal to a judge on an individual basis to have their records sealed.

“That was one of the fallacies that was being sold when they were pitching this, is (that) this is the only way (and) if you don't support this, you don't believe in second chances. That's just not true,” Murray said. “We already have a system that allows for those second chances, and cases have been sealed when it's appropriate.”

Murray represents portions of Suffolk County, where a Republican, Ed Romaine, running on a law and order platform, beat a Democrat in the race for county executive earlier this month.

In the 2022 gubernatorial election, the GOP candidate for governor, Lee Zeldin, came in a close second to Democrat Hochul, after Zeldin made crime a campaign issue. Democrats also lost four congressional seats to Republicans.

Zeldin and other GOP candidates focused on the state’s controversial bail reform laws, approved by Democrats in 2019.

Senator Patricia Canzoneri- Fitzpatrick, also a Long Island Republican, is among those already comparing Clean Slate to bail reform.

“The damage is going to be done just like we're seeing from bail reform,” Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick said. “We all have to wait for the tragedies to happen as a result of this.”

The measure is likely to become an issue in the 2024 elections, which include all seats in the state legislature, the state’s 24 seats in the U.S House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate seat held by Kirsten Gillibrand.

Hochul said she knows that there will be political blowback from the new law. But she said opponents are distorting the truth.

“I believe there'll be a lot of distortions about what we're doing here today it'll be weaponized by the Republican Party,” Hochul said. “But the truth is important to get out there.”

And she said the truth is that Clean Slate will result in fewer crimes.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.