Marijuana joint Photo: Shutterstock

Legislation that would revise procedures and eligibility for the expungement of criminal records, particularly those involving minor marijuana offenses, cleared both the New Jersey Assembly and Senate.

The bill now heads to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for his signature.

Advocates say the bill—reached as a compromise after expungement of marijuana offenses was made separate from legislation intended to legalize recreational marijuana use for those 21 and over—will go toward reforming the criminal justice system and aid communities hardest hit by low-level marijuana offenses and put more resources toward treatment and rehabilitation.

The Senate bill, S-3205, sponsored by Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham, D-Hudson, Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, passed the Senate by a 24-12 vote on Monday in Trenton.

The Assembly version of the bill, A-4498, won final legislative approval in the full Assembly, 50-15-6, also on Monday.

“As we begin to focus on criminal justice reform, both at the state level and nationally, we cannot forget about those who have already gone through the system,” Cunnigham said. “If we are ever going to have a justice system truly based on rehabilitation, those who have been convicted must have a fair shot at life after having served their debt to society.

“Many Americans spend the rest of their lives fighting the stigma around their conviction, hindering their ability to find a place to live or get a job,” Cunningham said. “Expanding the eligibility for expungement will allow more people to remove that stigma and break down the barriers preventing them from reaching their full potential.”

S-3205/A-4498 would also create an expedited expungement process for certain marijuana or hashish-related offenses and reform the application process for all types of expungement to make it more accessible.

Those who were still working to pay off fines would be eligible and the collections would be transferred to the state treasurer under the legislation.

“Whenever there is a conversation about the racial disparities among our state’s incarceration rates, we cannot forget that those convictions follow people for the rest of their lives,” Ruiz said. “The collateral consequences that come with a criminal conviction have been devastating communities of color, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and fracturing families for much too long.

“Expungement can begin to address the inequalities that exist in our criminal justice system,” Ruiz said.

Sweeney, one of the prime sponsors of S-3205, said, “By bringing those with criminal convictions out of the shadows and removing the stigma stinting their growth, the whole state will brighten. The more people are able to find occupational and economic success, the better off we are as a state.”

In addition to reforming the expungement of criminal records, the bill would also:

  • Establish a “clean slate” expungement to allow someone ineligible under the new provisions to apply for expungement.
  • Allow for the expungement of controlled dangerous substance convictions of the third or fourth degree.
  • Allow all convictions for controlled dangerous substance crimes to be treated the same as other crimes and offenses in terms of eligibility for expungement.

Cunningham has a provision in the bill named after her. The “Cunningham Cleanser” permits formerly incarcerated persons to petition the court after 10 years of law-abiding life to expunge their criminal record.

“This simple, yet profound act, recognizes the importance of ‘second chances,’ it enables persons to regain their dignity, their employability, their status in the community,” former Gov. James McGreevey, who championed expungement legislation in and out of office, said in a statement.

Added Rev. Steffie Bartley of the National Action Network’s New Jersey chapter:

“Senator Cunningham’s expungement legislation sets a new course for New Jersey. This bill will enable the formally incarcerated to reclaim their lives. Particularly, the ‘Cunningham Cleanser.’ This legislation will help thousands return to gainful employment and productive lives.”

An expungement bill was first introduced in November 2018.

In his State Budget Address in early March, Murphy announced he would only support a marijuana legalization bill that made expungement a key part of its mandate.

“This is the right step for eliminating decades-old and persistent racial and social inequities,” Murphy said in a speech March 5.

But legislation to legalize, tax and regulate adult recreational marijuana use stalled in both houses in April, and was declared officially dead for the remainder of the 2019 legislative calendar by Sweeney on May 15, over intra-party squabbles and regional differences.

The terms of expungement, including dismissal of all pending marijuana charges and convictions for up to five pounds, also became a sticking point for some legislators.

Key lawmakers, including Sweeney, said a separate expungement bill as well as legislation to expand medical marijuana, would both be introduced in June.

Democrats in the Assembly who sponsored the revised expungement bill, including Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson, Jamel Holley, D-Union, and Benjie Wimberly, D-Bergen, praised its passage Monday.

“This was a heavy-lift with many moving parts, but it had to be done in New Jersey,” said McKnight in a statement after the Assembly voted after 3 p.m. “Creating an avenue for residents to clear their name and their record moves New Jersey closer to equity and justice in the expungement process.”