Op-Ed: Black Lives Matter makes clear need for expungement reform

Adam H. Rosenblum | December 8, 2020 | Opinion
The life-changing effects of expungement are obvious. Now we need to make them obvious to everyone, especially politicians
Adam H. Rosenblum

On July 9, NJ.com reported on the struggle of New Jersey resident Kenneth Jones, whose efforts to clear his criminal record have been stymied by a backlog in the New Jersey courts that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus. The then-14-month delay has inhibited his ability to get a better job or find more suitable housing.

His story is similar to that of many people of color and other minorities in New Jersey and nationwide. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has surged in recent months, leading to talk of defunding or radically reforming policing. But these measures won’t repair the damage already done to many minorities who suffer under the stigma of a criminal record, which in thousands of cases exists solely due to one-time offenses for petty crimes and misdemeanors. These criminal records can not only scar one’s self-esteem, but also create barriers that impede basic opportunities to advance in society, including employment, housing, education and more. To fix this will require serious expungement reform, and New Jersey can lead the charge.

Forty-two states in the United States allow individuals to seal or “expunge” their criminal records. Yet very few take advantage of this. As recently as late 2019, New Jersey passed new laws making the expungement process easier. Some lucky individuals could have their record cleared after only three years. But even three years can seem like a lifetime if one cannot find employment or safe and affordable housing.

Even worse, three years is a best-case scenario — five or six years are more common. And this is assuming that everything goes smoothly. Remember, New Jersey’s expungement process is suffering from a major backlog caused by outdated systems and coronavirus-induced staffing challenges.

Delays extend punishment

A comprehensive study by Rosenblum Law of New Jersey reveals that New Jersey is not the easiest state when it comes to having one’s criminal record expunged. The fact remains that any kind of waiting period is a de facto additional jail sentence for those individuals who often have only committed a low-level offense. While recent headlines have been all about police reform, true criminal justice must also include reasonable expungement laws.

Criminal records disproportionately impact the poor and people of color. According to the NAACP, African Americans are twice as likely to lose a job over the same convictions as whites. Two separate studies by the National Institute for Justice found that 17% of white Americans with convictions received callbacks for jobs, compared to 5% for African Americans. Overall, having a criminal record reduced the likelihood of getting a job by two-thirds for African Americans. The same studies also showed that Hispanic and Latino Americans suffered similar penalties for a criminal record. Ethnic disparities in the justice system are even more evident when we examine marijuana offenses and their impact on criminal records.

In addition to unfairly impacting these ethnic groups, expungement laws penalize the follies of youth. How many of us have made missteps when we were younger? Yet as we matured and looked back on our actions, we were able to acknowledge that we’d used poor judgment at the time and are now sincerely remorseful. New Jersey’s significant waiting period before records can be cleared ensures the record hangs over the heads of Black men and women far beyond the sentence.

Limiting job opportunities

Regardless of the crime and when it was committed, a criminal conviction of any kind can close doors on job opportunities. It can also limit housing and educational opportunities. According to the research from the advocacy group the Sentencing Project, more than 60% of formerly incarcerated individuals are still unemployed one year after release. Those who do manage to find jobs take home 40% less pay on average.

 A closer look reveals that individuals who’ve successfully had their records expunged can turn their lives around. An article featured in the Harvard Law Review found that those who received expungements saw earnings increase by 20%, as unemployed persons found work and minimally employed persons landed steadier jobs.

Expunging records can also lower crime rates. Harvard University research shows that after age 26 people convicted of crimes are far less likely to commit another crime if they have at least full-time, minimum-wage jobs.

The vast majority of those who have served their time, as proven by multiple studies, are far less likely to commit additional crimes after receiving an expungement.

Since we all agree that Black Lives Matter, let’s not just pay lip service to the concept but act swiftly to remove one of the single greatest barriers to equal opportunity. We can help others get a clean start and sooner, by not only shining a light on the benefits of expungement but by lobbying politicians to make these long-overdue changes.