Eduardo made a mistake 10 days before he turned 18 in New York City.
“Basically every single day, I relive that moment,” says Eduardo, who is now 32 and still regularly passes by the spot where he was arrested for the first and only time in his life.
Police caught him selling cocaine on the sidewalk next to the apartment building he’s lived in since he was a kid. His plan, he says, was to make some money to pay for marijuana. Instead, it stalled his college years and landed him a three-years-to-life sentence in an adult prison.
He convinced a parole board to let him out early after more than seven months. Still, he came home at 18 years old with a criminal record.
“Shortcuts, they won’t get you anywhere, man. Just give you a hard time,” he says. “They’ll give you a lot of time to think.”
He asked NPR to identify him only by his first name because he’s worried a future employer or landlord might find out about his criminal record. He says it’s cost him plenty of jobs since he left prison.
“The initial interview would go great, but towards the end when it was time to run that background check, that’s when reality hit,” he explains. “I’ve heard the word ‘no’ so many times. It’s hard, man. It’s hard to keep telling yourself you’re not going to give up.”
But just before the new year, Eduardo finally got the phone call he had been waiting for. One of his attorneys called him late one night to tell him that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was granting him a pardon.
It’s one of the first pardons in New York state for former offenders who committed a nonviolent crime when they were 16 or 17 and have stayed conviction-free for at least 10 years. Anyone convicted of a sex crime does not qualify, and pardons can be withdrawn if the recipient is re-convicted.
Cuomo announced the first group of 101 pardons on Dec. 30, after creating the youth pardon program in late 2015. About 10,000 people could benefit from this program for New York residents, according to an estimate from the governor’s office. So far, it’s received 260 applications.
For Eduardo, receiving the governor’s pardon means the conviction record that’s haunted him into his early 30s is now sealed from the general public. Some government agencies that require a deeper background check through fingerprinting can still access his rap sheet. Still, sealing his conviction record could help get rid of many of the barriers to jobs and housing Eduardo and thousands of other former teen offenders have faced.
“They serve no good public safety function, and yet they really make it even more difficult for people to readjust to the community once they’ve completed their prison term,” says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.
He says New York’s program could serve as a model for other states, including North Carolina. That’s the only other state like New York that charges 16- and 17-year-olds for all crimes not as juveniles, but as adults.
Mauer adds that records in the adult justice system can be harder to seal than in the juvenile system. In fact, adult records about misdemeanors in New York are never sealed.
“You can be 16 years old, you can hop a turnstile, you can get convicted for theft of services, and that will be on your record the rest of your life,” says Laurie Parise, executive director of Youth Represent and one of the attorneys who helped Eduardo apply for Cuomo’s pardon.
While many advocates for criminal justice reform hail the pardon program as an important way to help former teen offenders, they also see the need for pardons as a reminder that New York has one of the country’s toughest sentencing laws for teenagers.
“The real solution to this is for New York to raise the age,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, referring to proposals to change state laws so that 16- and 17-year-olds are tried as juveniles. “That way kids will be treated as kids and not subjected to the scars of a criminal conviction. They’ll be more likely to be able to stand on their own feet.”
Cuomo, a Democrat, supports reform efforts in New York. But lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state Senate have pushed back against recent proposals to raise the age of criminal responsibility, citing concerns about how a change would put more pressure on courts and housing for juvenile offenders.
While they wait for a legislative solution, advocates at Youth Represent and other organizations are trying to find more former teen offenders in New York to apply for a second chance in time for the next round of pardons.
“We can’t continue to define young people by the worst mistake they ever made,” Parise, Eduardo’s attorney, says. “We have to give people a chance.”
Eduardo’s still waiting for his chance to become a health educator. Since finishing his prison sentence, he’s completed his associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. For now, he’s working two jobs to help raise his four-year-old daughter.
More than a decade later, memories of his arrest and time in prison still motivate him today.
“I tell myself, ‘I am better than this.’ I am much better than what a piece of paper or what this judge has sentenced me,” he says. “I know that this is not who I am.”