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A law change that takes effect this fall will allow many people convicted of crimes to have those offenses wiped from their criminal records, a move that many believe will help those with limited criminal histories get back into the workforce.
The change to state Penal Law, part of the state’s 2017-18 budget, will allow judges to “seal” court files so that they will not show up on civil background checks.
The new program will create a process in which those with criminal convictions can have up to two nonviolent and/or lower level offenses cleared from their record, after waiting 10 years. The convictions and records related to them will still be accessible by law enforcement, however.
“The goal is to get people re-engaged in the workforce who are otherwise barred from employment,” Queensbury lawyer Tucker Stanclift said. “I envision a lot of clients who are going to want this done.”
Lawyers said the change will help thousands of people dogged by old convictions.
Queensbury lawyer Gregory Canale said he has heard from clients who tell of trying to fill out online job applications, only to have them close when they click a box indicating they have a criminal conviction.
“It’s virtually impossible to compete in the job market with a criminal record,” Canale said.
Violent felonies, sex crimes and multiple felony convictions will not be eligible for the sealing orders, and the sealing of the file won’t be automatic once the 10-year mark has passed.
Judges from the courts where the person’s convictions originated will have the final say, with prosecutors weighing in as well.
“You have to show that you are a person of good moral character and that you are worthy,” Canale said.
The change will create another layer of work for many in the criminal justice system, including prosecutors who review applications and judges who will ultimately decide whether to grant them.
Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan said the state District Attorney’s Association was involved in the process of creating the change, and believe it balances concerns about recidivism with the ability to help those who have changed their ways get past a mistake from years earlier.
“We don’t want folks relying on government assistance and we want to help get them back in the workforce,” he said.
Some do have concerns about concealing finance- or money-related convictions that could give potential employers insight about whether to put a person in a position where money is handled, he said.
Moreau Town Justice Jeff McCabe, president of the Saratoga County Magistrates Association, said he believes judges and their court staffs will be inundated with requests as word spreads about the change in law.
He said many aspects of the law remain unclear, but the process will likely be similar to that used for a “certificate of relief from civil disabilities” that convicted criminals can get to have some rights restored after conviction. He said he favors giving those who deserve a break a chance to get past a mistake made early in life.
“There are a lot of good people who did dumb things when they were young,” said McCabe, a retired South Glens Falls Police officer. “What I did as a 19-year-old is not the same as what I did as a 35-year-old.”
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