As many as 10,000 New Yorkers could be eligible for pardons for nonviolent crimes they were convicted of as teens, provided they have lived on the straight and narrow since then. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Sunday that his office will actively seek out such ex-cons to see if they are eligible.
“It’s a way to help people get on with their life,” Cuomo said in a Sunday interview with the New York Times.
The initiative does not wipe convictions off anyone’s record. Rather, Cuomo’s move would provide those who qualify with paperwork, certification and, where applicable, legal help to show to potential employers, landlords and government agencies who might regard a conviction as cause to deny jobs, housing or access to services.
To qualify, ex-offenders must have lived 10 years without further convictions. They must also be either employed, looking for work or enrolled in school, and they must be up to date with their taxes. Those convicted of sex crimes are not eligible, and the state reserves the right to withdraw or revoke its pardon should the applicants be convicted of another crime.
Cuomo's plan is part of a broader clemency project his office unveiled in October, when the governor commuted the sentences of two drug offenders, calling it “a critical step toward a more just, more fair, and more compassionate New York.”
It is also a break from the norm, not just at the state level but nationally as well. Cuomo has issued fewer than 10 commutations or pardons during his five years in office (he was elected to a second term in 2014), and the overall number of pardons granted by governors has been in decline since the 1960s.
Cuomo's move also comes at a moment when more attention is focused on the iniquities and costs of the criminal justice system. According to research conducted by the National Institute of Justice, nearly one-third of American adults are arrested at least once before the age of 23, and fewer than 5 percent of the crimes they are arrested for are violent in nature.
Yet the costs of these arrests and convictions are severe. Employment audits conducted in New York City and Milwaukee found that having a conviction on one's record reduced the likelihood of getting a callback for a potential job by half.
Cuomo has made several moves to address this during his second term. Earlier this year, he made the case to the New York Legislature that the state’s age of criminal responsibility should be raised from the current 16 to 18. Republicans in the state Senate prevented the measure from coming to a vote.
Cuomo’s new plan was enacted by executive order. “You do what you can with the powers you have,” Cuomo said. “This is within my power.”