For years, Phil Repaci could never quite determine why he continued to get rejected for bank loans, housing and educational opportunities and jobs he considered qualified for.
It turns out, the culprit was a misdemeanor criminal offense, dating back 17 years in Nassau, for which he received a conditional discharge and a $500 fine.
Although the penalty was minor, the consequences to his reputation were severe.
Faced with diminished opportunities, Repaci, who now lives in Pennsylvania, sought assistance from Breaking Barriers, a program co-sponsored by the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society and run by Touro College students that helps individuals correct errors on their RAP [Record of Arrests and Prosecutions] sheets.
Roughly 30% of RAP have errors that may influence hiring decisions by employers, experts say, including arrests that were never prosecuted, incomplete dispositions or cases not properly sealed sheets.
Clients of the pro bono program can also obtain Certificates of Relief from Civil Disabilities and Certificates of Good Conduct — documents that remove automatic statutory disqualification from jobs or licenses — while a select few, including Repaci, have their records permanently sealed.
“It is allowed me to pursue better work opportunities,” Repaci, who works in health care, said of the sealing of his record. “I was able to apply for licenses that I hadn’t had before. More opportunities for housing opened up. I don’t have to worry anymore about the job application process.”
Helped more than 2,000 clients
To date, Breaking Barriers, which launched in 2013, has assisted more than 2,000 clients from Long Island and beyond, and it is currently working on about 340 cases, said Liz Justesen, the Legal Aid Society’s chief community outreach officer,
Their clients include a small-business owner who was turned down for a government loan during COVID; A father who was denied entry into Canada for his daughter’s graduation and a woman rejected from getting subsidized housing — all for minor criminal offenses dating back more than a decade.
“A lot of what we do is advising people on how to become eligible,” Justesen said. “A lot of people come to us and say, ‘I completed my jail sentence. I completed my probation sentence. And now everything’s gonna be great.’ But there are over 45,000 collateral consequences that come after all of that.”
For example, Justesen said, more than 100 educational or occupational licenses can be denied to a felon. Lack of employment, experts say, is the number one predictor of recidivism.
A conviction can also effect an individual’s right to vote, obtain public benefits, own a gun, drive, serve in the military, hold a public office, have custody of their children or, for some immigrants, remain in the United States.
“We’re really about two chances and helping people to remove barriers to employment and to professional licenses,” said Laurette Mulry, attorney in charge for the Legal Aid Society. “And we’re all about empowering people and giving people the tools that they need to be successful. One of the things that we always say is ‘we don’t want repeat customers. system.””
Some are not eligible
But not everyone is eligible for relief from past convictions.
For example, to obtain a Certificate of Relief from Civil Disabilities an individual must show evidence of their rehabilitation and have no more than one felon conviction. Permanent record sealing requires no more than two convictions of any type, 10 years without a conviction and prohibits sex offenders and many violent offenses. The process, Justesen said, can take up to nine months.
The problem is widespread as roughly 2.3 million New Yorkers have a criminal conviction, according to the Brennan Center for Criminal Justice.
“And it’s not just 2.3 million people,” Justesen said. “It’s all their families who got affected.”
Touro Law Center student Madison Scarfaro, 26, of Lindenhurst, has worked on Breaking Barriers since September.
“This has been one of the most rewarding opportunities that I’ve ever had,” Scarfaro said. “Helping people who might not know where to turn themselves is really important.”
In June, the State Senate passed the Clean Slate Act, which would seal New Yorkers’ criminal records three years after sentencing for misdemeanors and seven years for felonies. The measure, however, stalled in the Assembly.
In 2020, Suffolk joined a number of jurisdictions, including New York City and Westchester, in restricting the use of preemployment inquiries into an applicant’s criminal conviction history. The measure, known as Ban the Box, makes it illegal to consider an applicant’s criminal history at the initial application phase although it can be considered later in the process.
Despite making strides to rebuild his life, Repaci said one lapse in judgment from nearly two decades ago nearly overshadowed his life,
“One mistake,” he said, “can lead to a lifetime of judgment and discrimination and ridicule and alienation from a lot of aspects of daily living.”