Correia and Nielsen

The Wayne County Public Defender’s Office wants to help eligible applicants seal their criminal convictions under a new state law. Seen here are assistant public defenders Andy Correia and Cheryl Nielsen.

LYONS — Andy Correia doesn’t like being the bearer of bad news, but he has to be honest when talking to someone who committed a crime years ago.

“We get calls here on a regular basis from people who have old felony convictions, and they want to know if they can be expunged because they have been out of trouble for 10 to 15 years,” Wayne County’s first assistant public defender said. “I have to tell them New York does not have an expungement statute, and that felony is not going away.”

While that’s not the answer people want to hear, a relatively new state law gives them a ray of hope — and it’s an area where the public defender’s office can help.

In October, a new section of state criminal procedure law went into effect that allows for the sealing of eligible criminal convictions for offenses that meet the strict criteria of the law (see accompanying article on Page 7A).

“We’ve had about 10 calls so far from people who have heard about the law, although a couple of them weren’t eligible,” said another assistant public defender, Cheryl Nielsen. “We’ve even heard from someone with a conviction that happened more than 50 years ago.”

For years, public defender’s offices and other defense attorneys have lobbied the state Legislature to approve some kind of sealing or expungement law. Correia said those attorneys were surprised last year when the law was “tucked into” the state budget bill that included raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.

“All of a sudden, word got out that there was a sealing bill,” he said. “We became aware of it in the spring and it became effective Oct. 7.”

People who want their conviction or convictions sealed must fill out an application available on the state Office of Court Administration website. It includes factors such as the amount of time since the conviction, steps the person has taken to get treatment, education and employment, and community service or volunteer activities.

Statements from the crime victim and a narrative by the applicant can also be part of the application. Nielsen can help and said the application only costs $5 to submit.

“It can say what has happened since you’ve been convicted and how you’ve successfully reintegrated into society,” she said. “They can write their narrative, and I will review it with them to make sure they are putting all the positive aspects of their life forward.”

The application is reviewed by the district attorney’s office, which has 30 days to challenge it. If the DA’s office has no objection to the sealing, the application goes to the sentencing court that handled the case for final determination.

If the DA’s office does challenge it, the judge will order a hearing.

Since the law went into effect, many DA’s offices in the state said they are unlikely to challenge the sealings. Convictions sealed under the new statute should be impossible to find for any private employer, although police will have access to the sealed data.

“Folks who have been out of trouble for a long time but are still haunted by their past mistakes could really benefit from this,” Correia said. “Someone with a long criminal history is not going to be eligible, but if you haven’t been on anybody’s radar for 10 years and have been doing something productive during that time ... we hope it will be easy to articulate a good argument that it should be sealed.

“I think the benefit is in certain employment situations. People will get a much better shot at employment.”

Anyone who believes they are eligible for sealing a conviction in Wayne County can contact the public defender’s office at (315) 946-7472. People will be asked for basic information to see if they are eligible.

“Every person I have talked to so far has a story of what was happening at that time of their life and how they have changed their life. That is what is going to be convincing to the court,” Nielsen said. “Most of us don’t have our mistakes follow us and get thrown in our face for the rest of our lives, at least publicly ... and we want to help.”

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