David DeLancy was arrested in 1979 at 17 years old. He served more than 20 years in prison, completed parole and sought to return to society a changed person, for himself and for his family. Upon his release, he searched desperately for a job and for housing, submitting roughly 40 housing applications that cost anywhere between $50 and $90 each. He was repeatedly told he was a perfect candidate, that his credit score was excellent and that his income was sufficient, until he was subjected to a background check.
“After that background check, everything started to change,” he said. “I was no longer that perfect candidate.”
DeLancy is one of more than 2 million New Yorkers carrying a conviction record and facing the often insurmountable roadblocks that come with securing housing and employment. He would cry in the bathroom, away from his family, so that his kids wouldn’t witness his struggle.
“My criminal record is still being held against me for something that happened when I was 17 years old,” he said. “I thought that I wasn’t going to be defined by my worst moment, that I would be accepted for the changed person that was coming back to my community.” He is currently a service coordinator for the New York County Reentry Task Force and also works with Exodus Transitional Community, an organization that provides re-entry programming for adults and youth affected by the justice system.
To escape what he and others have called “perpetual punishment,” DeLancy joined activists, lawmakers and community organizers Tuesday for the Clean Slate Advocacy Day, the culmination of the coalition’s efforts to pass the Clean Slate Act ahead of the Apr. 1 state budget deadline.
The Clean Slate Act would automatically wipe clean the records of millions of New Yorkers with a criminal history, three years after the day of their release for misdemeanors and seven years for felonies. The bill came close to passing during last year’s legislative session, but ultimately fell short after lawmakers failed to reach a consensus on the bill. The advocacy day, organized by the Center for Community Alternatives, featured a press conference, community discussions and meetings with state lawmakers.
“The people who will need to be most influenced are our legislators,” Marvin Mayfield, director of organizing at the Center for Community Alternatives, said. “It’s the fourth quarter. The pressure needs to be kept on them.”
Mayfield was formerly incarcerated and his criminal record also haunts him to this day, should he wish to apply for housing, education, or even in some cases a bank account. He remembers the debilitating feeling of being released from prison, and holding $40 and a bus ticket in his hand.
“Forty dollars to get your life back together, and the next thing you know, you’re getting denied inclusion, you can’t get a job, you can’t get housing,” he said. “I have seen too many people and even personally faced the frustration of going back to negative behaviors and habits because of an inability to take care of yourself.”
Lowering recidivism rates is just one of the problems the Clean Slate Act aims to solve, in addition to providing formerly incarcerated individuals with a second chance. Lawmakers, advocates and faith leaders argued Tuesday that if Clean Slate passes, it will significantly bolster New York’s economy, curb generational poverty and address racism in the criminal justice system.
Those who served time in prison lose an average of $484,000 in earnings over their lifetime, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice. Nationally, economists estimate that the annual gross domestic product is reduced between $78 and $87 billion as a result of excluding formerly incarcerated job seekers from the workforce, a 2017 report from the ACLU shows. In New York State alone, barring justice-involved individuals from entering the workforce translates to nearly $2 billion annually in reduced earnings, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Dr. Divine Pryor, co-chair of the NAACP New York State Criminal Justice Committee, addressed the economic impact during Tuesday’s press conference.
“Why would we want to have millions of able-bodied men and women who are capable of working, who want to work and who have needs to meet not only for themselves, but for their families, not working?” Pryor said. “We’re talking about millions of individuals, who otherwise should be a part of the labor force, should be in our education institutes, should be fully employed, should be able to participate in society.”
Further, 80% of New Yorkers with conviction records are Black and Latinx, according to a 2021 report from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Due to their criminal records, Black and Latinx individuals disproportionately face discrimination in jobs, housing and education.
“We must pass Clean Slate to prevent discrimination so that the most marginalized people in New York are not punished in perpetuity,” Assembly member Michaelle Solages, a co-sponsor of the bill, said.
A 2017 New York State law allows for conviction records of approximately 600,000 eligible New Yorkers to be permanently sealed under certain conditions. However, far too few people know how to apply or have the resources to do so. Fewer than 2,500, less than 1 percent, have completed this complex process and hundreds of thousands of others are not eligible to apply.
Given this reality, support for the Clean Slate Act is wide ranging, from lawmakers to corporations including JP Morgan Chase, unions, faith leaders and 50 New York law firms. Polling shows that a majority of New York voters support the bill, and support rises dramatically as voters better understand the contents of the bill. A striking 91% of New York voters feel it is important to give those with criminal records a fair chance.
On Jan. 5, Gov. Kathy Hochul committed her support for the legislation during her State of the State Address and vowed to include it in this year’s budget. However, she proposed a version of the bill with several amendments, which advocates argue dramatically weakens the bill.
“We are holding the line on the legislative version, because that’s the strongest version, the most inclusive version,” Garrett Smith, statewide organizer for the Center for Community Alternatives, said. “If the executive version passes as it is, it will be a loss.”
In the executive version, the waiting period does not start until the end of the maximum sentencing period, in addition to any parole or probation. For example, if someone is sentenced to five to 15 years in prison and five years of parole, under the executive version their case would be sealed 22 years after their release from prison. Under the legislative version, it would be sealed 12 years after release. On average, the executive version adds 15 years to the waiting period.
“The watered-down version that the government is proposing diminishes the importance and the urgency of this bill,” Mayfield said.
Winning the Governor’s support for the bill was critical. But advocates now face the challenge of toeing the line between standing firm on the version lawmakers drafted and maintaining the Governor’s support, to ensure at least one version of the bill passes this session. Mayfield stressed that the legislative version will only serve those who have stayed out of trouble and are trying to change their lives. They simply deserve the benefit of policies that will support their integration back into society, he said.
Lawmakers who support this bill, like Assembly member Catalina Cruz, the bill’s primary sponsor in the Assembly, are committed to advocating for the passage of the legislative version.
“We’re going to make sure that we pass this bill this year, and that we pass it in a way that really honors what we’re trying to do,” Cruz said. “We’re working with the governor’s office to make sure that they see that the language that we need is the language that we drafted, the language that ensures that people have a real second chance at life, a real second chance at making sure that they get out of poverty, that they are contributing members of our community.”
Gregory Pierce, 71, has already been home from prison for 17 years and doesn’t want to wait any longer to live as a free man.
“You’re going to make me wait seven more years?” he said. “I might be dead by then.”
Pierce has compared the lasting impact of his criminal record to wearing paper handcuffs. He is currently working as a certified recovery coach, but has struggled since his release in 2005 to secure employment.
“There’s a difference between living and existing,” Pierce said. “Existing is when you have to depend upon somebody else to do things for you. Living is when you’re responsible for yourself. You’re able to work, go out there, do a job, do something positive for the community, give back to the community. I want to live, I don’t want to exist.”
The legislative version also amends the Human Rights Law to prohibit employers from considering sealed records and allows individuals to sue for violation of this sealing law. The executive version has no such enforcement mechanism. Although other states have passed laws like Clean Slate, the legislative version of the bill would put New York at the forefront of this movement. It would also better the lives of those who have already waited several years to shed their criminal records.
Just two weeks ago, DeLancy applied for funding to finish the bachelor’s degree he started in prison. But his arrest came up on his background check and he was denied the funding.
To apply further pressure on lawmakers to pass Clean Slate this session, DeLancy will travel with advocates from the Center for Community Alternatives and take their fight to Albany, where they will be hosting in-person rallies and press conferences beginning Mar. 23. Though they have already secured 50 co-sponsors for the bill, they are hoping to reach 75 before Apr. 1.
“I don’t have a doubt in my mind that this bill will be passed,” Pryor said. “But until it is, we have to continue to push.”