ENDICOTT, NY – A collaboration between 3 local entities is working to help people with criminal backgrounds seal their histories while lobbying for further reform.
Cornerstone Community Church in Endicott is partnering with the Broome County Public Defender’s Office and the county’s ABLE Re-Entry Program to assist the formerly incarcerated with the process.
A 2017 law in New York State allowed people to apply to have their criminal records sealed from most employers and landlords.
However, the system requires them to hire an attorney to represent them before a judge.
As a result, less than 1% of those eligible have taken advantage of the opportunity.
Cornerstone Pastor Greg Johnson says most people leaving jail or prison can’t afford the thousands of dollars necessary to hire a lawyer.
“To perpetually penalize people who have served their time, no longer are involved in the criminal justice system, have turned their lives around. And many of them have gone back to school, only to have the opportunities that they try, the doors shut in their face,” says Johnson.
A local woman who we’ll refer to as the initial “J” knows first hand the difficulty of finding a job with a felony record.
J, who is a recovering addict, was caught selling drugs to an undercover cop in 2015.
After 4 months in a prison rehab and another 8 months on parole, J discovered that she faced a lifetime of punishment.
She was repeatedly turned down for jobs at gas stations and doing data entry, work she had plenty of experience at.
“I was honest. Every application I filled out, I was honest about it. And if they did get me for an interview, I would explain exactly what happened, what my life was like then, what my life is like now. But it didn’t matter, didn’t matter. That felony was there,” says J.
J went back to school to get an Associate’s Degree in Medical Coding and Reimbursement Specialist.
And she met Public Defender Mike Baker whose office took her on as a client because she met the income eligibility.
Her records are now sealed and she’s working to get her life back on track.
But the Director of ABLE Re-Entry Jeff Pryor says there are lots more like J unable to further their rehabilitation through employment.
“What we found is that the larger companies are actually using third party filters which filter out the people that check the box, the formerly incarcerated, so they never make it to the interview. Our whole goal is to help them get to that interview,” says Pryor.
The coalition is advocating for the proposed Clean Slate reform in Albany that would eliminate the need to hire an attorney.
Records would be sealed automatically if someone meets the criteria: having been out of the criminal justice system for 3 years with no further brushes with the law.
Violent felons and sex offenders don’t qualify.
In the meantime, the Public Defender’s Office is offering to represent those who qualify for its services based on income.
For more information, call 778-2403.