Written by SSDP NY State Policy Intern and New York University SSDP Chapter Leader Robert Belpasso
IOur lobby day aimed to draw support for legislation that would declare criminal history screenings on the college application a discriminatory process. Senate Bill 969, introduced by Senator Velmanette Montgomery, would restrict all New York institutions of higher education from performing criminal history screenings until after the student had been accepted by the institution. We chose this legislation as our goal, because in the State University of New York (SUNY) application process, all campuses must perform criminal history screenings through in Academic Review Board to decide if felony applicants should be accepted. These boards consist of admissions, administration, and public safety members to review an applicant’s eligibility for acceptance through supplementary information requested following the submission of the initial SUNY application. The process of acceptance for formerly incarcerated applicants becomes daunting when faced with obtaining letters of recommendation from correctional facility staff and parole officers, as well as their Department of Criminal Justice Services record which is highly classified and contains misdemeanors and offenses when the applicant was a minor (which are sealed after the subject comes of age). The criminal history question in contingency with the supplemental application for the review board causes 62.5% of felony applicants to fail to submit their normal and supplemental applications. Over 1800 felony applicants a year are left out of higher education because these barriers stigmatize their past and equate their past criminality with their current drive to achieve academically. The criminal history screening presents a barrier to all applicants that desire to increase their knowledge and skill-set in the competitive economy.
Our goal is to gain at least Republican support on the Crime Victims, Crime, and Correction Committee for SB 969 to help it pass committee. The committee consists of 13 Senators, 7 Republican and 6 Democrat. With 5 of 6 Democrats sponsors of the legislation, we aimed to gain Senator Diane Savino as a sponsor as well as speak with as many Republicans on the committee to find the one vote SB 696 needs to pass committee. There is no better way to express support for this legislation targeting higher education in New York than having New York students present Senators their case for its passage of SB 969.
On February 22nd, after months of planning and organizing appointments, 25 students from New York University, SUNY Albany, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute came together at the Legislative Office Building in Albany to speak to 11 State Senators and their staff. We were assisted in our meeting by Dionna Warwick of the Education Inside Out Coalition, which helped write SB 969 and performed research on Admissions Review Boards at SUNYs with the Center for Community Alternatives. I found it incredible to be surrounded by so many promising peers and we sent a whirlwind through Albany to promote SB 969.
Our first meeting was at 10:30 AM with the Office of Senator Robach (R,C,IP) of the Finance committee. We got to practice how to frame our discussion in preparation for an important 11 AM block of three meetings with members of the Crime Victims, Crime, and Corrections Committee. For these important meetings, we separated into three groups to meet with Senator Savino (D, WF), Senator Peralta (D, WF), and Senator Venditto (R, C). Our meeting with Senator Savino went well though we did not hear a specific response sponsoring the bill, we established a dialogue that her office is supportive of the legislation while maintaining focus of marijuana decriminalization at the State-level. Senator Peralta is already a sponsor of the legislation, so our conversation revolved around the potential for the bill to pass. We had a great conversation on the state of the committee and where the bill currently stands as many Senators are unaware the legislation.
Senator Venditto’s office was the most supportive of the legislation. We met with the John Banville, the Legislative Director, and Nathaniel Gurol, a Legislative Fellow. When I informed Mr. Banville of the existence of criminal history screenings on the college application he was surprised and shocked. He told me he understood how restrictive such a barrier must be as for low-income marginalized communities reeling from the War on Drugs. Our conversation dug to heart of why the process is so discriminatory. Mr. Banville explained Senator Venditto has racialized low-income communities in his district and recommended I inform Mr. Gurol and him of the result of our meeting with the Chair of the Committee, Senator Gallivan. Mr. Gurol assured us he would inquire with a peer in Senator Mongomery’s office to see where the legislation stands before addressing Senator Gallivan’s office about the legislation. I was surprised how supportive of an ally we had gained through our conversation with Mr. Banville and Mr. Gurol.
At Noon, we had our most important meeting with Senator Gallivan’s office. We met with Larry Blocho Jr., a Senior Legislative Assistant, and for the half-hour meeting, we presented our case. Mr. Blocho had few questions and mostly write down all the facts we presented him with. We never received any indication this legislation would be reviewed, but we were able to present our case the office of the Crime Victims, Crime, and Corrections Committee’s Chair. Sadly, this left us with little information to provide Mr. Banville. The rest of the afternoon continued as before with us spreading information on criminal history screenings at SUNY campuses. We met with the offices of Senators Marchione, Ritchie, Diaz, and Breslin before the end of the day. By the last meetings, a reporter for U of Albany joined us to write an article on the Lobby Day.
We had an incredible time. This was my first experience lobbying and I am so proud to have such supportive peers to have worked with. We expressed how much support exists for SB 969, a legislation which could have easily been forgotten. This is not the end of this struggle, though. Sign the action center to expresses support for SB 969. We will continue to express support for SB 696 as the committee moves into session and our support becomes more important. I want to thank everyone for their assistance I hope to be back at the Capital to perform this work again!