In 2002, a then 16-year-old Aminta Williams got into a fight with a neighborhood acquaintance near her home in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The scuffle ended in both being arrested and Williams being sentenced to three months at Rikers Island.
Like thousands of New Yorkers with a criminal record, Williams found that her past mistakes made it hard to move forward with her life. More than once, she struggled to find housing after being denied a Section 8 voucher, she said, and was turned down for multiple jobs due to her conviction.
“I found myself feeling like there was no hope,” said Williams, now 34. “Every door was slammed in my face.”
Despite being a teenager at the time she allegedly committed her offense, Williams was tried as an adult. Before New York passed its Raise the Age legislation in 2017, it was one of just two states that still tried 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in criminal court, forcing minors to serve their sentences among adult offenders and opening their criminal records to the public.
Under a bill now before New York’s state Legislature, juvenile offenders such as Williams would have a greater ability to seal their criminal records by shortening the wait time. The legislation, written by former Queens Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, has been unsuccessful in the past, but under a new Democratic majority in the statehouse and pressure to re-examine the excessively harsh impacts of the criminal justice system, may have a better chance of passage in 2021.
A provision under the existing Raise the Age law allows for former offenders convicted of up to two crimes to apply to have their records sealed, 10 years after their sentence is issued or, in some instances, has been served. Records of a sex offense, homicide or serious and violent felony cannot be sealed.
In 2018, a judge’s decision to deny a 50-year-old Queens woman’s application to seal documents on a second-degree robbery conviction from 1984 highlighted what legal advocates say are the shortcomings in current state law. The woman, referred to as Jane Doe in Judge Joseph Zayas’ decision, was 16 years old when she allegedly committed the crime, but wasn’t granted youthful offender status after pleading guilty to second-degree robbery. When she applied to have her documents sealed 34 years later, the court ultimately denied her petition because a second-degree robbery is considered a violent offense disqualifying her from the record-sealing statute.
Simotas’ bill, which has been picked up in the Assembly by Assemblymember Latoya Joyner who represents New York state’s 77th district, was approved by the New York State Assembly last February but failed to gain approval in the Senate. For those convicted of a crime and not granted “youthful offender” status, it aims to shorten the wait time after which people can apply to have their documents sealed, lowering it from 10 to five years.
Under the bill, judges would still have discretion over a petitioner’s sealing request and they may consider the petitioner’s age at the time of the alleged crime, evidence of rehabilitation and whether sealing documents would allow for the petitioner to more successfully return to normal life. To date, the legislation has passed in the Assembly twice.
Juvenile justice advocates are split on the functionality of the bill, with some arguing that it is too narrow in scope and should be broadened to allow people who committed crimes in their early 20s to have their records sealed.
State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D), who has sponsored the legislation in the senate, said obstacles to the bill’s passage in the past have come from Republican lawmakers and some constituents opposed to reforms of the bail system.
But Myrie said he is optimistic that in the current economic climate, legislation to simplify the sealing of juvenile records will be more successful in both houses of the Legislature, in large part due to renewed calls for criminal justice reform sparked by the death of George Floyd last summer.
“There is a national conversation, a national reckoning with this country’s history and DNA of structural racism that I think helps with any conversation around the criminal legal system,” Myrie told The Imprint.
Myrie added that he also felt positive about the bill’s prospects this year because of the financial hardship plaguing many New Yorkers during the pandemic.
“When we talk about giving people opportunities to participate in their local economies, whether someone has a criminal record and access to it by employers is very much a part of the conversation,” he said. “If we want to get people back to work as soon as possible I think this bill is not just a criminal legal bill, this is one of economic opportunity.”