June-11-2019

Hundreds of thousands of people have weed convictions in N.J. They could soon be able to clear those records.

Below is an article written by Payton Guion and published by NJ Advance Media on June 10, 2019.

New Jersey’s troubled expungement system could soon get an overhaul after both the state Senate and Assembly passed a bill Monday that would make many changes.

It’s now up to Gov. Phil Murphy to decide whether to sign the bill into law or veto it.

If the Democratic governor signs the bill, it would make clearing criminal records easier to come by in a state that has one of the most burdensome expungement processes in the country, as reported earlier this year by NJ Advance Media.

The plan would allow people in the state with marijuana convictions to apply to clear their records immediately. Since 1990, nearly 1 million people in New Jersey have been arrested on marijuana charges, according to the state judiciary.

It would also reduce the amount of time that people with non-marijuana convictions have to wait before they can apply to clear their record.

Both houses of the Democratic-controlled state Legislature passed the bill — the Senate by a vote of 24-12 and the Assembly 50-15.

“We have spent a long time and taken every consideration possible to do what is the right thing,” state Sen. Sandra Cunningham said Monday. “Let us remember: Everyone deserves a second chance.”

But it’s not clear how Murphy will respond. His office wouldn’t comment specifically on the legislation on Monday, but the governor has previously said he doesn’t think it makes sense to address expungement without also addressing marijuana legalization.

Murphy did, however, campaign on expunging marijuana convictions and has yet to take any action on that front.

“Our ultimate goal was the legalization of marijuana and taking care of social justice,” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-Union, who is one of the main sponsors of the bill. “Unfortunately we couldn’t get legalization done, but you can’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Holley said it’s important to address marijuana expungements now, even though marijuana legalization remains a distant goal.

The problem many people have raised with this bill is that it allows people to clear marijuana convictions, but it does nothing to stop marijuana arrests. Anyone arrested for marijuana after the bill takes effect would have to wait 18 months to apply for expungement. But if that person were to get that record cleared, they could still be arrested again for marijuana possession.

But the bill would help people seeking to clear old criminal convictions in a number of ways.

It reduces the amount of time people have to wait to apply to expunge their record, from six years to five years, and it eliminates the $75 application fee.

It also shifts some of the burden of the expungement process from the petitioner to the state. Previously, the petitioner was responsible for notifying all levels of law enforcement in the state — from local court to the state police, and every agency in between — of their expungement request. If the bill becomes law, the state would absorb that burden.

Margaret Love, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., who is an expert on expungements, said earlier this year that New Jersey may have “the most burdensome” expungement requirements in the entire country. This bill would reduce that burden, which has been one of the biggest reasons why it’s so difficult for people in New Jersey to clear their records. The state doesn’t keep records of how many people apply for expungement but fail to get one.

It’s unclear how the state Judiciary would be able to keep up with these changes should they become law.

The state currently expunges about 10,000 records a year, but there are hundreds of thousands of people who would be eligible for expungement immediately if the bill passes. That math doesn’t work and the bill isn’t clear about how the Judiciary would fund the expungement overhaul.

So even if it does become easier for people in New Jersey to clear their records, it remains to be seen if the state will be able to handle the volume of expungements that could come its way.

Payton Guion may be reached at PGuion@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @PaytonGuion.

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