With over two million Americans behind bars, this country has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our society pays a big price for that distinction, not only in the staggering cost of incarceration itself but in the long-term effects – most notably in terms of employment and housing – on previously incarcerated individuals and their families. As part of our pro bono efforts, Proskauer has helped clients through a recently enacted New York law (CPL 160.59) that enables the sealing of certain old convictions. From this work, two things have become clear: it is an important, impactful law, but for many of our pro bono clients it does not offer relief.
Under the statute, an individual may seal up to two prior convictions, only one of which can be a felony, provided at least 10 years have elapsed since release from prison. Convictions such as violent felonies and sex offenses are not eligible for sealing. In partnership with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) and the Community Service Society of New York (CSSNY), we started several months ago taking on these matters. The clients have turned their lives around but continue – a decade or more after serving their sentence – to suffer real consequences.
One client, in particular, who made an indelible mark on us: a soft-spoken man who in the 10 years since serving a prison sentence, started a wonderful family and built a successful business. For him the relief offered by this statute was important not simply because his prior convictions (all low-level drug offenses) made it difficult for him to obtain a loan. The need for relief went deeper – it was a matter of self-esteem. He made mistakes in his youth, took full responsibility for them, changed his life, and now desperately wanted to let go of the embarrassment and shame of being labeled a “criminal.” Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do for him because, as it turned out, he had a second felony conviction from many years ago. Anyone with more than two misdemeanors or more than one felony and one misdemeanor (unless the multiple convictions are tied to the same incident) is automatically disqualified. While the need to place some restriction on eligibility is important, the law currently offers no recourse for our client and so many like him.
We are now assigning a number of similar matters to our new associates. For every client we help, however, there will be a number of people we have to turn away because of the statute’s limited reach.