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Making It Easier for Ex-Offenders to Make a Clean Start

Thanks to a trio of bills just enacted, expunging a criminal record can be done sooner and for a greater number of offenses, a particular boon to youthful offenders

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Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

New Jersey has made it easier for many ex-offenders to start their lives fresh after release, with a significant reform of the process for expunging one’s criminal history enacted on Wednesday.

Gov. Chris Christie’s signing of three bills (S-3306, S-3307, S-3308) dealing with expungement was a logical next step on the ladder of criminal justice reforms that Christie, a former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, has signed during his tenure. The reforms so far had spanned the spectrum of the process, from bail reform that moved from a predominantly cash-based system of pre-trial release to one based more on risk to expanding drug courts for nonviolent offenders to creating a medium-security drug-treatment prison for addicts. The latest measures focus on post-incarceration.

The bills Christie signed are meant to make more people eligible to erase a criminal record for minor offenses, shorten the amount of time youth and adults must wait before seeking an expungement, allowing for a greater number of offenses to be removed from their records, and strengthen the law preventing employers from asking about a criminal record.

“Expungement has to be an option that’s available to those who have earned it and who deserve it, and this legislation will allow people to get that,” Christie said during a public bill signing in Trenton, where he was surrounded by legislators and others who worked on the issue. “I spent a lot of my career putting people in jail who deserved to go, and that doesn’t change any of this. But those people are going to eventually come out of jail and what do we want them to be when they come out? What do we want them to have an opportunity to do? Do we want them to have hope in their lives?”

Finding work for former prisoners

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, chairman of the New Jersey Reentry Corp., which works to help those released from incarceration get employment, called the enactment of the bill package “a discernible, meaningful step” to helping former inmates get back into society and lead productive lives.

“At the end of the day, expungement is important for gaining entry into the job market,” he said.

The package of bills broadens the ability to essentially erase one’s entire criminal record, including all files with the court, detention facility, law enforcement, and other justice agencies that deal with an apprehension, arrest, detention, trial, and disposition of an offense. This is especially important to helping an ex-offender get a job.

Minor offenses

“A minor criminal offense should not lead to a lifetime of punishment,” Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham (D-Hudson) and lead sponsor of all three bills, said in a statement. “These laws are about removing barriers for residents and helping them to overcome the obstacles that exist in finding employment, taking care of their families and setting their lives on the right path. These laws are a great step to providing offenders with the second chance they deserve.”

S-3307 makes the broadest changes to expungement laws. It allows a person to erase as many as four offenses or groups of offenses that occurred within a short period of time, provided the person has not been convicted of any prior or subsequent offenses. It also permits the expungement of the crime of possession of marijuana with the intent to sell up to an ounce. And it allows a person to seek expungement as early as six years, rather than 10, after the completion of all prison and post-release monitoring time and payment of all fines, with even earlier expungement possible if a person needs only to pay a fine and the court agrees.

Echoing an assessment of the bill’s effect by the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, the state Office of Legislative Services’ analysis of the bill predicts it will lead to an increase in the number of people who seek expungement every year, currently about 8,400. That would mean the state spending at least $500,000 more to upgrade technology to comply with the bill’s provisions and an undetermined amount of additional costs to process applications. It could also lead to a reduction in state collections of court-ordered fines and other financial obligations.

S-3308 allows for the erasure of an entire juvenile record as soon as three years after the completion of all court-imposed terms, rather than five years.

S-3306 strengthens a law Christie signed in August 2014 known as “Ban the Box,” that prevents employers from asking about a person’s criminal record on an initial employment application. This bill prohibits an employer from not only asking about an applicant’s criminal history verbally or in writing, but also from making an online inquiry about a past record, including one that had been expunged.

‘An enormous step forward’

“This legislation is an enormous step forward and takes significant strides toward making New Jersey a place that, like many of its sister states, allows for a second chance sooner and more completely in the past, and does so with particular appreciation for the consequences of forever burdening a juvenile with the consequences,” said Lawrence Lustberg, chair of the criminal defense department at Gibbons PC law firm and a force behind the legislation.

“While this is not quite the opportunity to completely ‘wipe the slate clean,’ for which we advocated, this is a very salutary development,” Lustberg continued. In particular, he said that the reductions in the amount of time a person must wait before seeking expungement “represent truly enormous progress.”

“Too many families and communities in New Jersey are being broken apart because of the barriers those with criminal records face after they’ve already served their sentences,” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union) in a statement following the bill signing. “Making it easier for them to build a good future for themselves ultimately will benefit our entire state.”

Christie said he had initially been disappointed that lawmakers had not passed the package earlier so he could have signed them before the Legislature’s summer recess, but thought the timing was appropriate.

“I think signing a bill like this five days before Christmas is a really, really good thing to do,” Christie said. “It reminds people that God is forgiving, and that God made us in his image, and that we need to be forgiving, too. That we need to give those who have truly earned forgiveness the chance to be forgiven.”

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