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June 4, 2012 by ANN GIVENS / ann.givens@newsday.com


Lakeisha has been haunted for nearly 20 years by a mistake she made as a teenager.  


In 1993, Lakeisha pleaded guilty to grand larceny in Suffolk County after failing to tell the government about money she held in a trust account while she was receiving public assistance.


Even now, she maintains it was an honest error. She did not have access to the $18,000 in the trust -- a settlement from a car accident when she was 3 -- and she says it never occurred to her that it was relevant to her application.


In the years since, Lakeisha, now a mother of four and a licensed mortgage broker, has struggled to get and renew her professional licenses, get jobs and keep them, all because of the old conviction.


Her hopes are riding now on a proposed law, drafted recently by the New York State Bar Association, that would allow her and others in her situation to ask a judge to seal her old criminal record.


"I could see why if I was a habitual offender, but I've done nothing but improve myself in the last 20 years," she said, asking Newsday not to use her full name because she doesn't want to further publicize her record.


The bar association proposal was spearheaded in part by Mineola defense lawyer Rick Collins, who is co-chairman of the group's Record Sealing and Expungement Committee.


The proposal would bring New York into line with other states, most of which have a procedure in place for convicted criminals to have their records sealed if they meet certain conditions, Collins said. It has earned the endorsement of Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, but has drawn pointed questions from Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and the state District Attorneys Association.


Under the proposal, which was approved by the bar association's House of Delegates this year, people convicted of crimes would have to wait five years after a misdemeanor conviction, or eight after a felony conviction, before asking a judge to seal their record, and could commit no new offenses in the interim. People who had been convicted of drunken driving, crimes against children and the elderly, sex crimes and public corruption would not be eligible, Collins said.


If they commit a new crime after their records were sealed, their record would become public again, he said.


"People really do make mistakes, especially when they're younger, and in this state it's a life sentence," Collins said.


Two lawmakers, Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn) and Assemb. Daniel O'Donnell (D-Manhattan), have introduced similar bills, and both said they would be open to discussing modifications in line with the bar association proposal.


But there are critics. Spota said through a spokesman, Robert Clifford, that he has reservations about the idea.

"We . . . are wary of any proposal that will hinder law enforcement's authority to access information or otherwise impede our ability to properly investigate criminal conduct," Clifford said.


The state District Attorneys Association expressed similar qualms. In a recent letter to the bar association, Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore, current head of the prosecutors' group, questioned whether it would be better instead to make it easier for people with criminal records to get professional licenses. She said the sealing proposal could be a financial strain to the court system.


"It seems more reasonable to first consider amending licensing restrictions based on criminal convictions before the more drastic approach of hiding information from the people and the press by the invocation of a legal fiction," she said.


Rice said she supports the proposal. In a letter to Collins early this year, the Nassau district attorney said she shares his committee's belief that allowing some offenders to seal their records "would assist this targeted group in their ability to gain employment, support their families and, ultimately, continue on a successful rehabilitative path that we know reduces the likelihood of recidivism and increases public safety."


"Some offenders don't deserve a second chance, but others do, and society is well-served by removing unnecessary barriers to employment," Rice said.


Debate over sealing records on old crimes