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Op-Ed: "Clean Slate" and Bad Consequences

By Senator Jack Martins

We all root for the underdog to turn misfortune around. That is why some New Yorkers support the “Clean Slate Law” recently signed by Governor Kathy Hochul. The law seals criminal records for most offenders in hopes that, by doing so, people will more easily shake any stigma associated with their criminal convictions.


This idea certainly comes from a good place, but there are never any one-size-fits-all answers. The core of the problem is "recidivism," which refers to a person’s return to criminal behavior, after completing their prison sentence.


The facts about recidivism is shocking. According to the Harvard Political Review, more than 600,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons each year. Another nine million are released from local jails. But within three years, two out of three are rearrested and more than 50% go back to jail. That’s not good.


These statistics make it clear that too many ex-offenders return to a life of crime.


Clean Slate doesn’t address that issue – claiming that the law helps “people who have truly committed to turning their lives around.” But with such high recidivism, most offenders don't "turn their lives around." So why are we embracing such an across-the-board approach?


For years we allowed judges to seal records using their own discretion. Individuals could apply for certificates of good conduct, relief from civil disability, and expungement of criminal records. Yet, promoters of Clean Slate believe it’s now wiser to take that discretion away from judges and parole officers with years of decision-making experience.


I wish I had a solution for the high recidivism rates: I don’t. Nor does anyone else. While the problem certainly merits our attention, the primary goal of government is to keep citizens safe. So the more important question for me is how to protect innocent people from becoming victims of that recurrent crime.


The most obvious method, for thousands of years, has been disseminating information.


If you’re aware of potential danger, you can avoid it.  That’s why we have fire alarms and weather reports. From that standpoint, this new law is deeply flawed. It expressly limits a person’s ability to size up a situation and make rational decisions. Further, it hinders an employer’s ability to hire and a landlord’s ability to protect tenants. Worse, it openly ignores the advice from the front lines as law enforcement and victims’ rights advocates are also against it.


Consider that our state has emptied prisons faster than any other – with a nearly 27% drop in prison population between 2019 and 2022. We’ve also eliminated bail in many cases and we are suffering a “smash and grab” epidemic that makes New York City tops for shoplifting numbers among the nation’s largest cities.


“Clean Slate” prioritizes the concerns of criminal offenders over the concerns of victims, law enforcement and legal experts. We must overturn laws that don’t work: "Clean Slate" is one bad law that I’ll be fighting to overturn.

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