On May 6, 2021, Next100 policy entrepreneur Zaki Smith presented testimony to the New York State Senate for a public hearing on Senate Bill 1553A, The “Clean Slate” Act. In the testimony, a version of which you can read below, he explains the need for legislation that will automatically expunge criminal records and asks, “After we have served our time what other debt do we owe?”
Good morning all,
Thank you for having me today. When I was released from prison in 2004, I knew I would never return. I was focused and I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life, and that was to be in the service of young people. It was very clear to me that my passion and purpose was to be a voice to help young people step into their power, and to help them navigate through many of the obstacles they face. I know first-hand about those obstacles. I’m a survivor of under-resourced, over-policed, and over-prosecuted Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, at the introduction of the crack era and mass incarceration. I’m a survivor of New York State’s violent response to the pain and suffering of communities of color. There was no voice or example to help me navigate through those times.
I knew that I would contribute powerfully to my community by building its young people. Upon release, I hit the ground running, finding spaces that would benefit from my story and what I had to offer as guidance for young people. In hindsight, I was subconsciously worried that people would also judge me for my past and not see me as a whole person. But I didn’t think about it too much until December 8th, 2017, a day I will never forget. I had been working in a high school for a nonprofit organization contributing powerfully to not only the school, but to the community at large, for about four and a half years. Several weeks earlier I was fingerprinted so the nonprofit could stay in compliance with contractual agreements. My past wasn’t a secret to anyone. Everyone knew of my past. It actually was a benefit to the school based on the school population and the circumstances that young people were navigating. I was a credible messenger. On December 8th, 2017, as I headed toward the door of my home to leave for work, I realized I had a letter from the fingerprint unit. I opened the letter and it said the following:
“Pursuant to the above-cited stause, you are permanently disqualified from school employment, services as a volunteer, school board member or trustee of a charter school with any education institution under the Department of Education, or employment with a contracted service provider under contract with said school or educational facility. You have 14 days from the date of this written notice of disqualification to challenge the accuracy of your criminal history record.”
I was confused at first. I thought there would be an opportunity for me to demonstrate what I had done since being released from prison. How I have impacted the lives of young people and communities throughout the country, but there was no such opportunity. All they saw was my record. At that moment, at that very moment, I realized that I was serving a life sentence. I was given a silent life sentence of perpetual punishment. For the first time in my life, I questioned this discrimination and how this absolutely does not make sense. I thought, this is counterproductive to the safety of our communities, this is counterproductive to a person’s ability to move beyond their past, this is counterproductive to rehabilitation. To have a person serve their time, do all the things required in the sentence imposed, and then have them be punished for the rest of their life isn’t practical. It serves no one other than the revolving door of the prison industrial complex. This isn’t accountability, this is punishment. Punishment only serves the person administering it. With accountability, everyone is restored, the person who has committed the crime and those harmed by it.
It is possible that if December 8th, 2017 hadn’t happened, I would still be working with young people in the capacity that I was. I would have still been oblivious to the terminology of “collateral consequences,” I would still be oblivious to the fact that, according to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, there are over 44,000 laws and barriers that hinder the lives of anyone with a criminal record. I would not have known that there are 2.3 million human beings in the state of New York with a criminal record. That most disturbingly, from 1990-2019, 80 percent of New York state’s prison population was Black and Latino, and 75 percent of that population came from seven neighborhoods in New York City.
This is a bill that can restore some of the harm that our current system has imposed upon communities of color. This is a huge step towards what racial justice can look like in the state of New York. Clean Slate legislation is long overdue.
We can End Perpetual Punishment in New York.
Because “After we have served our time what other debt do we owe?”