As legalization looms, how will NJ address marijuana convictions?

JoAnne Zito says two job opportunities went up in smoke because of her misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction.

“Both jobs expressed great interest in hiring me until they received my background check,” said Zito of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey.

Zito told the Assembly Judiciary Committee such convictions complicate life. Lawmakers have a bill that would expunge convictions for low-level marijuana possession.

“If we are to allow for legal possession and use of marijuana as many other states have done, then we have to ask ourselves if it’s morally just to allow those individuals to continue to carry the scarlet letter,” said bill co-sponsor and Judiciary Committee Chair Assemblywoman Annette Quijano.

All the speakers at Monday’s hearing favored the bill.

“These laws that we currently have are neither just nor fair,” said Safeer Quraishi, administrative director of the New Jersey NAACP.

The ACLU says its study shows marijuana arrests increasing every year and African-Americans arrested at rates three or four times higher than whites in New Jersey, and even worse.

“Including some shore towns, where black New Jerseyans were arrested at a rate of 31.8 times their white counterparts,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha.

When questioned, the ACLU suggested the bill allow expungement for even some cases of distribution and when the smell of marijuana triggers a search.

The Municipal Prosecutors Association supports the bill as well.

Jon-Henry Barr is an unlikely marijuana reform advocate as the president emeritus of NJ Municipal Prosecutors Association and practicing prosecutor for the township of Clark.

“But as a practical human being, I’m thinking, ‘This is crazy.’ I’m really torn between feeling i need to enforce the law and realizing that the disobeyance of this particular law is so pervasive that I’m really not doing society any good by asking for a jail term,” he said.

Lawmakers learned from the office that administers the courts that expunging someone’s criminal record is no easy process.

“In your petition you have to list all of your arrests, charges and prosecutions, even those that you’re not seeking to expunge in this petition,” said Alyson Jones, the legislative liaison for the New Jersey State Judiciary.

That’s after the person seeking expungement collects all of his or her records from police, probation and or parole and courts that heard the case. It costs to file petitions and a thousand dollars or so to hire a lawyer. A Rutgers Law School expungement study underway since last summer reveals even with a lawyer there’s rejection.

Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice assistant professor Sarah Lageson explained one such instance:

“He copied his arrest history from his CCH onto the petition. Turns out, and this took two researchers and two attorneys a year to figure out that he had violated an order from a family court when he was a juvenile,” she said.

Lawmakers say yes, the process is daunting, but unquestionably necessary.

“Let’s right some of these wrongs, now is the time. It’s been far too long, but we need technology, we need resources. This starts with a program coordinator to at least centralize it,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, who co-sponsored the expungement bill.

Because the process is so cumbersome, several speakers advocated automatic expungement for some marijuana convictions, shifting the burden to the state.