Plan to Seal Some Criminal Records Debated

New York Times, 20 Oct. 2000

A proposal to seal lower-level convictions of some nonviolent criminals drew the appearances at City Hall yesterday of former mayor Edward I. Koch, who argued the merits of the measure, and Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who staunchly opposed it.

The proposal, already passed by the State Assembly, would assist people who have served state prison terms for misdemeanors or nonviolent felony convictions, mainly in drug cases. Termed a "second chance program," it would make New York the only state to permit criminal records to be sealed -- and employers denied knowledge of an applicant's criminal past -- five years after a convict's sentence is completed. The Republican-controlled state Senate did not vote on the bill before adjourning.

Under the proposal, in the five-year period before records could be sealed, applicants would be required to perform community service, undergo drug and alcohol testing and get high school equivalency degrees.

Anyone with a sealed record who was then re-arrested would lose the confidentiality, and their conviction records would be made available for police investigations, prosecution and court sentencing.

"This is not soft on crime," said Mr. Koch in testimony before the City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services. "People would have an opportunity not to become recidivists, but to contribute to society."

In a surprise appearance, Commissioner Kerik argued strenuously against support for the bill. He called it "a travesty of justice and an insult to law enforcement."

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, asked about Mr. Koch's proposal at a press conference, said he might support a different version that only applied to people convicted of misdemeanors. "I think records should be open," he said. "People hiring someone for a job should have the maximum amount of information about them."

Commissioner Kerik, who appeared before the council committee with Steven M. Fishner, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator, said the proposal "would give drug traffickers the opportunity to make their convictions disappear."

"I state unequivocally and emphatically that if enacted, this bill will seriously impede my ability to fulfill the duties I owe to the citizens of New York City," he said. Although the bill provides police with access to sealed criminal records in investigations, he said its language was ambiguous and might prevent the broad access that the police depend on in undercover narcotics work, and incases involving gangs where a former felon with a sealed record may pose a threat even though he is not the main focus of suspicion.

Mr. Koch argued that the measure would help ease employment circumstances for the large numbers of Hispanic and black men who had been incarcerated, and might help counter what he termed the unfairness of the state's drug laws.

By Thomas J. Lueck

© 2000, New York Times