DAs, Attorneys Work to Seal Convictions But Statute Is Limited, Leading Lawyer Says

By David Brand

An attorney championing record-sealing for individuals with past convictions said the state’s sealing law has two major problems, and only one can be addressed at next week’s Know Your Rights Week.

First, too few people know about the law that enables individuals with 10-year old convictions to to get their records sealed, said Emma Goodman, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s special litigation unit. That’s the problem that Borough President Melinda Katz aims to tackle with Know Your Rights week.

Second, the law does not go far enough to help people with old criminal convictions.

“It’s great for people who can benefit,” Goodman said. “But it’s very limited in terms of people who can actually use it.”

A state law enacted in 2017 enables New Yorkers with no more than two misdemeanor convictions or one felony and one misdemeanor conviction to have their convictions sealed if they have remained crime-free for ten years. Sex offenses, violent felonies, and serious felonies are not eligible for sealing.

Goodman leads Legal Aid’s record-sealing initiative and said that “at least three-quarters” of people who contact Legal Aid about the state law do not qualify.

“Generally, they have too many convictions. You can only have two in your entire criminal history,” she said. “It’s affecting their rights in a significant way.”

“The law just isn’t that great,” she continued. “And the people who can benefit don’t know about it.”

Local district attorney offices, including the Queens County DA’s office, have been amenable to sealing convictions for qualified individuals, but the process can drag out as the legal community gets accustomed to the relatively new law, Goodman said.

“For the most part, DAs and courts have been a little slow in terms of administratively figuring out how it will work, but they have been receptive to sealing if people are eligible,” she said. “We haven’t had pushback.”

Despite the law’s limited reach, Goodman said she has helped more than 20 New Yorkers, including a handful of Queens residents, get their convictions sealed. According to the New York Times, only 346 records were sealed statewide as of May.

For those fortunate individuals, conviction sealing has had an “incredible” impact, Goodman said, adding that a few more people have had their records sealed since that Times report.

“My clients have gotten dream jobs they never could have gotten before,” she said. “I had a client who went to grad school and a client who applied for housing and moved to a better neighborhood with better schools.”

The stigma of criminal conviction can hinder a person’s ability to land a job or secure housing.

In addition to the tangible achievements, Goodman said the most dramatic impact of having a conviction sealed is the psychological relief people experience.

“Knowing they have this record that is public information weighs on them and lifting it makes them feel better about themselves and their future,” she said. “That is the most uplifting part.”

Though the Borough President’s weeklong series free legal workshops, titled “Know Your Rights Week: Closing Cases, Opening Doors,” cannot expand the reach of the law, it can help more people learn about the statute, find out if they qualify and apply for relief.

“Our hope and aim with ‘Know Your Rights Weeks’ is to bolster public awareness and connect eligible New Yorkers with free legal assistance and, ultimately, relief,” Katz said. “The tireless efforts on the part of our community partners – and especially the Legal Aid Society – to equip and empower New Yorkers of their rights have a direct impact on building a better future for the growing families of Queens.”

The sessions will take place at nonprofit organization offices in Jamaica, Long Island City, Queens Village and Far Rockaway; Borough Hall in Kew Garden; and the Queens Library branch in Jackson Heights. In June, Katz hosted a successful Know Your Rights Week campaign to help Queens immigrants apply for relief, asylum or naturalization.