Ismael Diaz Jr, a Long Island resident and small business owner, served nine and a half years in prison for manslaughter. After being released from prison in 2016, his struggle for securing employment began. 

Diaz recalled going through three rounds of interviews for a janitorial position at a supermarket, only to be rejected due to his criminal record. 

Eventually, he was hired by a company which he chooses not to name. He felt he was finally turning over a new leaf. After a month on the job, he said received a citation for excellent performance and a raise—but was fired 10 days later due to the results of his background check. He said he had already told the company about his conviction prior to being hired.

“It was definitely a huge struggle and very stressful of not maintaining a steady job to help take care of my family. I thought I was paying my debt to society,” said Diaz, who is now a community organizer for the Center for Community Alternatives, an advocacy group that works to end mass incarceration, as well as promoting safety and justice across New York State.

Diaz and other activists have been on a mission to persuade state lawmakers to pass “Clean Slate” legislation, to automatically seal certain criminal records after individuals serve their sentences and remain crime-free for the required number of years. 

Those efforts became reality on Thursday, when Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Clean Slate Act into law—making more than two million New Yorkers with prior convictions eligible to have their records sealed. The legislation is part of an effort to allow formerly incarcerated people to seek employment, housing and educational opportunities. 

Ismael Diaz, Jr., entrepreneur and community organizer, is among the 2 million New Yorkers expected to benefit from the new Clean Slate Act. (PHOTO/Office of the Governor Kathy Hochul)

Under the act, those with eligible misdemeanor convictions will have their records sealed after three years. Those with eligible felony convictions will have their records sealed after eight years. Serious crimes such as sex offenses, murder or other non-drug Class A felonies are not eligible to be sealed. 

“My number one job as the New York State Governor is to keep people safe. And I believe that the best anti-crime tool we have is a job. When people have steady work, they’re less likely to commit crimes and less likely to be homeless,” Hochul said.

Hochul said the act would also help address an ongoing labor shortage in the state. 

“We do everything we can to fill those jobs. But New York State has lagged behind some other states,” Hochul said at the bill signing ceremony at the Brooklyn Museum. 

New York is Latest to Sign Bill

New York became the 12th state to enact the Clean Slate legislation, joining states like Utah, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and others. 

The law will go into effect in November 2024 and gives the New York State Office of Court Admission up to three years to identify and clear all eligible records.

“It’s not every day that we can change our laws to strengthen our communities, make our legal system more fair, improve public safety and grow our economy at the same time. But that’s exactly what Clean Slate will do for New Yorkers,” said State Senator Zellnor Myrie(D-Brooklyn).  

Criminal justice advocates spent years fighting for the measure—going up against critics who charged that the law is too broad and endangers public safety. 

“Clean Slate is wrong on so many levels. Not only is the message this law sends to crime victims and their families a disgrace, I have absolutely no doubt that this will also create more crime victims,” said State Senator Dean Murray (R-Suffolk County). “Private business owners won’t fully know who they are hiring, and landlords won’t have the whole picture about who they are allowing into their properties and in some cases, into their homes.”

‘Landmark Step Forward’

But proponents praised the act as a victory.

“Today is a landmark step forward for the state of New York. Overincarceration has destroyed far too many communities of color. And even worse, that damage lingers when those who paid their debt in full are still blocked from finding a job or a place for their families to live,” said Hazel Dukes, president of the New York chapter of NAACP. 

Many business and economic coalitions and advocacy groups praised the bill after it was passed by the Democratic-controlled state legislature earlier this year, saying it would boost economic opportunities. 

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase said in a statement that the bill would “create opportunities for individuals to build their lives and improve their financial health, and at the same time deliver results for employers and strengthen the economy.” 

A report conducted by the New York City Comptroller’s Office a month before the bill was passed by state lawmakers estimated  that New Yorkers are missing out nearly $2.4 billion in annual earnings due to criminal convictions. 

A separate report released by Santa Clara University estimated that nationwide, individuals with misdemeanor convictions lose an estimated $5,100 in earning potential per year. Those with a felony conviction lose roughly $6,400 per year—and likely even more in New York, they calculated. 

The Clean Slate Act is a great victory for racial and economic justice in New York State. It will give millions of New Yorkers who are trying to rebuild their lives a better chance at jobs, college and housing,” said Ames Grawert, senior justice counsel at NYU Law Brennan Center.