It just got easier for many New Jerseyans to wipe clean their past criminal records.
Today, changes in the state’s expungement law became effective that give people the ability to apply to have certain past criminal charges or a juvenile conviction removed from their records sooner. They also allow multiple offenses to be cleared at one time. Former Gov. Chris Christie signed the reforms into law at the end of last year.
“Given the fact that the court currently processes some 10,000 expungement applications a year, I think it’s safe to say that the new changes will open the door for thousands more applications each year,” said Akil Roper, vice president and chief counsel for re-entry at Legal Services of New Jersey, who cheered the changes.
Advocates say the reforms are important to allow people to reclaim their lives after committing a crime, meeting all sentencing and other requirements imposed by the courts as long as they had no new convictions. The stigma of having a criminal record can make it difficult to get a job, find an apartment and otherwise lead a prosperous life.
“Many people have something on their record — not only convictions but even a dismissed case or juvenile matter,” Roper said. “The bottom line is that record can haunt you forever. Expungement provides the avenue for a second chance.”
Expungement is the removal or sealing of one’s entire criminal record, including all files with the court, detention facility, law enforcement, and other justice agencies. People who have committed relatively minor indictable offenses, including some drug crimes, are eligible. A person may also seek to clear his juvenile record. Convictions for more serious offenses, including murder, kidnapping, arson, robbery and terrorism, cannot be expunged.
Down from ten years to six
The biggest change in the law allows a person to seek expungement as early as six years, rather than 10, after the completion of all prison time, post-release monitoring and the payment of all fines. It also permits the removal of as many as four offenses that occurred within a short time, sometimes called a crime spree. A person who has not paid all fines could still seek expungement if he continues to pay off the debt. It also allows for the expungement of the crime of marijuana possession with the intent to sell up to an ounce.
“Until now, expungement only was available to those who had no more than one criminal conviction in addition to two lesser offenses,” Roper said. “Now individuals may expunge four convictions or more — if all are part of a crime spree and provided the expungement applicants have been clean of any other offenses for five years or six years, in some situations.”
The law regarding the expungement of juvenile offenses has also changed. It now allows for a person to clear an entire juvenile record after three years, rather than having to wait five years.
Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham (D-Hudson), lead sponsor of the reforms, said at the time that she had sponsored them to give people a second chance because minor criminal offenses should not bring a lifetime of punishment.
Because the law is just taking effect, it is unclear how many people will seek to take advantage of it and what impact it may have on the courts. The Administrative Office of the Courts predicted it would increase the number of cases and anticipated having to spend at least $500,000 to upgrade technology and “a correlated significant increase to annual AOC expenditures” to process applications.
People can do it online
Additionally, the office suggested the law could bring “a significant, indeterminate reduction” in court-ordered state fines because the law eliminates the requirement to satisfy debts before eligibility for expungement.
Spokesmen for the state judiciary did not return a request last week for comment on the changes in the law.
Legal Services has updated its website to help people understand and take advantage of the new provisions through its Clearing Your Record Online page. The interactive site allows people to determine if they are eligible for expungement and fill out the necessary application forms for free; it is accessible from both computers and mobile phones.
“It is desperately important for the public to be made aware of the new reforms because the lives of so many people can be affected for the better,” Roper said. As a result of the changes in the law, many “who have served their time and paid their debt to society now will have a better chance to get a decent-paying job, secure housing and have other opportunities most of us take for granted.”