25 Took First Step to Second Chance at LIFE Camp

By Andy Katz

Roughly 25 Queens residents visited LIFE Camp in Jamaica to take the first step toward a second chance Monday night.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and the Legal Aid Society hosted the first installment of “Know Your Rights Week,” a series of confidential workshops to help New Yorkers with certain 10-year-old, non-violent convictions apply to have their records sealed under a 2017 state law.

“Don’t be scared of the process to change your life,” Erica Ford, the CEO and founder of LIFE Camp told the attendees. LIFE Camp helps Queens residents, especially young people, seek alternatives to violence and foster healthier, more productive lives.

“We’ve seen that some arrests, particularly of young people, are repetitive,” said Cory Benstone, a LIFE Camp staff member. “A young person comes into contact with the system the first time, it becomes that much more likely he’ll keep on doing so. So we’re trying to short-circuit that. And, face it, no one wants anything on their record.”

The state’s conviction-sealing law specifically 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.

At the event Monday, Legal Aid attorneys, along with some pro bono lawyers, explained details of the law and reviewed eligibility requirements with a small group inside the LIFE Camp office on Sutphin Boulevard. They then met with individuals in private to complete their applications.

Overall, the Queens District Attorney’s office has received 65 valid conviction-sealing applications, of which 36 have been disposed since the law went into effect, DA officials told the Eagle. In addition to the 24 records successfully sealed, 11 applications were denied and one was dismissed when the applicant did not show up for a hearing.

A total of 29 applications are still awaiting court action.

The stigma of criminal conviction can hinder a person’s ability to land a job or secure housing. Legal Aid’s Conviction Sealing Project aims to help more people overcome those obstacles and rebuild their lives.

“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.”

Anthony Posada, a supervising attorney in Legal Aid’s Community Justice Unit, said the majority of convictions eligible for sealing relate to substance abuse.

But people with substance use disorders often accrue numerous convictions fueled by drug offenses, like possession, or behaviors associated with the need to acquire more substances, like robbery or sex work.

Judy Whiting, the general counsel for the Community Service Society of New York told the Eagle that the law is a good start but must take into account how substance abuse influenced past crimes and led to repeat criminal convictions. CSS has turned away many applicants who simply do not qualify based on the current law, she added.

“The lifetime conviction eligibility limit is a major barrier that traps people whose more-than-two convictions might have stemmed from past problems, such as substance use disorder, that they have since overcome,” Whiting said. “Individuals should be permitted to seal or, better, expunge convictions no matter how many they have in their past.”

Though the conviction sealing law excludes many people with criminal convictions, the statute is part of a growing effort to alleviate the lifelong burden of a criminal record in New York.

In 2015, the city enacted the Fair Chance Act, which forbids potential employers from asking about criminal records until an actual job offer has been made.

New York State law also forbids employers from asking about arrests that did not result in a conviction, unless the case is still pending.

Legal Aid attorneys Melissa Ader and Emma Goodman explain the conviction sealing law. // Eagle photo by Andy Katz