Lawmakers request special session to pass Clean Slate

Clean Slate sponsor Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, D-Queens, speaking outside the state Capitol on June 8. Cruz was confident the amended bill would pass the Legislature before session ended two days later. Kate Lisa/Johnson Newspaper Corp.

State lawmakers and legislators vehemently urged the Legislature on Tuesday to reconvene in a special session to seal the criminal records of millions of New Yorkers.

The Clean Slate bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, D-Queens, failed to pass the Legislature before session ended June 10. The bill would seal the criminal records of about 2.3 million New Yorkers after three years of the start of a sentence for a misdemeanor offense and seven years for a felony.

“When we left, I had spoken to [Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie] and the speaker is very much committed to making this bill, this law, a reality,” Cruz said Tuesday.

Lawmakers reached a deal in the last week of session to pass Clean Slate before leaving Albany, but could not vote on the bill because of a technical drafting error.

Cruz was one of several lawmakers and activists to participate in a virtual rally Tuesday to call on the Legislature to reconvene in a special session to pass Clean Slate and seal millions of criminal records preventing New Yorkers from accessing employment, housing and education opportunities.

Sirena Sharpe, originally from Syracuse, was convicted for her involvement in a large Central New York cocaine distribution ring in 2008.

Sharpe was 17 at the time of her felony drug sale charge, was incarcerated and completed parole. Her past record continues to prevent her from getting hired for jobs, or accepted into colleges or universities, she said Tuesday.

“I’ve paid my debt to society, but I’m still being punished,” Sharpe said. “I filled out 73 applications and these were basic retail jobs, and I got denied for most of them directly because of that felony.”

Sharpe has fought for issues impacting incarcerated people since completing parole, and spoke Tuesday as an advocate with the Center for Community Alternatives.

Sharpe, who has two academic degrees, added, “I’m still turned down for accounting and professional jobs I’m fully qualified for.”

Cruz has spoken with Heastie’s staff, but not with the speaker directly about reconvening since scheduled session days concluded.

“It’s hard to tell if they will reconvene or not,” she said. “We could because of an emergency or any other issue. I’ve had conversations with people in the Assembly. The possibility of us coming back is hard for me to be able to tell.”

Representatives of the Assembly Majority and Heastie, D-Bronx, did not return multiple requests for comment Tuesday and would not answer questions about the Legislature holding a special session.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, has repeatedly voiced support for passing Clean Slate.

“The Senate Majority has long supported the Clean Slate bill and look forward to it becoming law,” Senate Majority spokesman Mike Murphy said Tuesday.

Legislative leaders have suggested they could call the Legislature to reconvene for a special session at any time, but remain tight-lipped about reconvening. Representatives with the Senate Majority did not answer questions about if, or when, lawmakers will be called back to session in 2021.

The Legislature has largely held session virtually since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers could return to Albany to participate in an impeachment trial against Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In March, the Assembly Judiciary Committee started an impeachment investigation after multiple women accused the governor of sexual harassment and misconduct, a federal probe into top Executive Chamber aides allegedly underreporting COVID-19 death data in congregate facilities, safety concerns about the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement named after Gov. Mario Cuomo and if Cuomo used state resources to publish his $5.1 million pandemic memoir, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The governor has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

Republicans in the Senate and Assembly were strong in their public opposition to Clean Slate and other Democrat-backed criminal justice reforms throughout the session, citing the exponential increase in shootings, homicides and violent crimes in cities across New York.

Assembly Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, and Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, have argued passing Clean Slate would encourage people to commit more crimes, further causing the state’s crime spike to increase.

The Clean Slate bill was originally set to seal and expunge criminal records for New Yorkers who completed their prison sentences after one year for misdemeanors and three years for certain felonies. It was amended to only seal criminal records during end-of-session negotiations.

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