Framing it as a way to help recovering drug addicts reclaim their lives, Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday announced a bipartisan agreement to make it easier for juveniles and adults to clear their criminal records.
Christie’s office said that the governor worked with Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, to introduce a trio of bills that would reform how New Jersey handles expungement.
“I commend Sen. Cunningham for working with me on this legislation that will return many more recovering addicts to their families as productive members of society and help break the costly cycle of recidivism,” Christie said in a statement.
Expungement allows people who have had contact with the criminal justice system to clear their records of past offenses, arrests and related proceedings. Once those events are expunged, they are legally considered not to have happened.
Many former offenders are turned away from jobs, housing and other services on account of past convictions. For them, expungement can be a critical tool for life advancement.
But supporters of reform have long criticized New Jersey's expungement laws as overly strict compared to other states, including Indiana, Kansas and Arkansas.
Expungement in New Jersey is limited to one indictable offense, for example, although many people are charged with more than one crime in connection to a single arrest. At the same time, many offenses are simply not eligible for expungement.
State law also requires offenders to wait 10 years — or five years in some cases — until they can apply to clear their records. That’s 10 years from the date of the most recent conviction, payment of fine, completion of probation or parole, or release from jail, whichever is later.
The three bills backed by Christie would reduce the expungement eligibility waiting period from 10 years to six, allow a petitioner to expunge one additional offense and allow expungement for low-level marijuana possession and distribution, according to a description of the legislation provided by Christie’s office.
The bills had not been published on the Legislature’s website as of Tuesday afternoon.
Other provisions would decrease from five to three years the waiting period to expunge an entire juvenile record and strengthen New Jersey’s “ban the box” law, which restricts employers when asking about the criminal background of prospective workers.
“A minor criminal offense should not lead to a lifetime of punishment,” Cunningham said in a statement. “These bills are about removing barriers for residents and helping them to overcome the obstacles that exist to finding employment, taking care of their families and setting their lives on the right path.”
Before becoming law, the bills must be approved by both houses in the state Legislature and then signed by Christie, who said in April that he hoped to enact the reforms by the end of June.