New York certificate scheme found inaccessible and ineffective


The certificate system for restoring rights after conviction in New York no longer serves its intended purposes, according to an investigation by City Limits.  The problem is that Certificates of Relief from Disabilities (CRD) are supposed to be a means to rehabilitation for people sentenced to probation, but the judges authorized to issue them see them (in the words of one public defender) “as a gold star, as a thing you get after you’ve been rehabilitated.”  The Parole Board appears similarly reluctant to issue Certificates of Good Conduct (CGC) to people leaving prison, even after a waiting period.

The requirement of proof of rehabilitation as the price of a certificate has created what the City Limits investigation describes as “a catch-22”:


A conviction can bar someone from public housing. It can keep them from getting professional licenses—such as the ones required to direct funerals, or be a security guard or a home health aide, among many others. And employers stigmatize people with convictions, making it hard for them to get jobs.  These are the problems certificates were created to remedy, but also the problems people often have to surmount before they’re deemed worthy of one.

When Governor Hugh Carey approved the two-track system in 1976 he declared that “Providing a former offender a fair opportunity for a job is a matter of basic human fairness, as well as one of the surest ways to reduce crime.”  But apparently this animating spirit of the law has been all but forgotten.

For years New York was the only state to offer relief from collateral consequences as early as sentencing, and was hailed as a model for other jurisdictions.  Indeed, 10 years ago advocates urged the Connecticut legislature to implement reforms modeled after New York’s law.  Now it seems New York could take a lesson from its neighbor to the East, whose recently revised relief scheme provides early targeted relief to aid rehabilitation, and fuller recognition of rehabilitation some time later.

Part of the problem is that New York’s system tries to do too much with a single certificate. That is, both certificates have essentially the same legal effect, except that one (CRD) is for probationers with no prior felonies, and the other (CGC) is for all others.  In contrast, the two-stage relief process Connecticut has adopted addresses both reentry and full restoration, similar to the Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act adopted in Vermont, and is conceptually and functionally preferable to New York’s two-track certificate system. The clear distinction in function between early and later relief in Connecticut makes it easier for each to fulfill its assigned role.  New York’s system is coceptually muddled and therefore functionally ineffective.

The Connecticut system also avoids the problem identified by City Limits that more liberal issuance of certificates to facilitate reentry at an early stage may water down their value later on: “if more people got certificates as a matter of course, it could end up undermining the idea that they show that someone is rehabilitated.”

The City Limits investigation also found that certificates are issued rarely because few New York lawyers and judges know about them:

Roland Acevedo, a lawyer who’s sued employers for discriminating against people with criminal histories, says lawyers are often as unaware about certificates as the people they represent. He adds that some judges, despairing of a defense lawyer’s ignorance, will suggest to the lawyer that they apply for a certificate for their client—that is, apply to the very judge suggesting that they apply.


“A lot of lawyers don’t know so they don’t ask,” Acevedo says. “It’s amazing how many people don’t know this law.”

This is not to say that New York certificates don’t work in certain cases, but those cases are likely to involve capable lawyers with clients who know exactly what they want:

But for those that do [know about certificates], Certificates can be powerful. After getting convicted of tax evasion back in 2010, the Ciprianis were in danger of losing the liquor licenses that made their restaurants possible. But the family, “whose lawyers are undeniably more talented than their cooks,” as the New York Observer put it, got a Certificate of Relief at their sentencing, which ultimately allowed them keep the licenses. But lawyers say that rarely happens for the average person.