People are human beings. They make mistakes.
Sometimes those mistakes harm other people through criminal actions.
The reasoning behind New York’s sealing laws — laws that allow certain criminal records to be sealed from public disclosure — is that people shouldn’t necessarily be punished for the rest of their lives because of past mistakes.
When those with criminal records can’t secure employment, education, housing and other benefits due to disclosure of past criminal acts, they can become burdens on society, demanding more social services and resorting to crime. So the sealing laws have a societal purpose.
Under certain circumstances, with certain individuals, and relating to certain actions, some forgiveness of past actions should be granted through sealing of records.
But in being compassionate, state lawmakers need to recognize that members of the general public, employers, law enforcement, landlords and people who engage in social contact with these individuals also have a stake in knowing about someone’s criminal background.
Shouldn’t, for example, a security company or bank know if someone’s been convicted of theft? Shouldn’t a landlord know if someone’s been convicted of vandalism? Shouldn’t a potential girlfriend friend know of someone’s past criminal harassment?
Is it right that public information of a crime be locked away from them?
So when state lawmakers consider comments at a joint Assembly Codes and Corrections committee hearing today about possibly expanding New York’s sealing laws, they should weigh carefully the benefits of expansion to the people seeking to have their records sealed against the harm that sealing could cause to the rest of society.
An expansive sealing law that took effect in 2017 allows people with a conviction of certain non-violent crimes at least 10 years old to apply to have their records sealed. Violent felonies and sex offenses are not eligible for sealing.
Several pending pieces of new legislation would expand that law to, for example, allow for automatic sealing of up to two misdemeanors (A8392); expand youthful offender protections from age 19 to 21 and create a new First Offender status for those 22 or older; expand the types of misdemeanors covered by sealing (A8161/S6561); require law enforcement to seal their records and not make them available to the public when they access them for enforcement purposes (A7670); and make it a misdemeanor to disclose sealed records (A6779/S4673).
Before voting to recommend expanding existing laws, lawmakers need to find out why more people aren’t taking advantage of them now, what impediments are in the way, and whether the public interest is served by expanding the list of crimes and the list of people eligible to have their criminal records sealed.
Forgiveness is important. But so is transparency.
Lawmakers need to remember that they serve all members of the public, not just those seeking to hide their past crimes from disclosure.