Package to Reform Expungement Laws

Assembly Democratic Legislative Package to Reform NJ's Expungement Laws Released by Assembly Panel

Legislative package would allow for automatic expungement of certain criminal records, reduce waiting periods for expungement application & create commission to study whether expungement of criminal records should be automatic

(TRENTON) - A three-bill legislative package sponsored by Assembly Democrats Jerry Green, Grace L. Spencer, Reed Gusciora, Gordon Johnson, John F. McKeon, Thomas Giblin, Benjie Wimberly, Charles Mainor, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Annette Quijano, Joseph Lagana, Gilbert "Whip" Wilson and Cleopatra Tucker to reform New Jersey's expungement laws was released Thursday by an Assembly panel.

The bills (A-206-471-1663-2879-3060-3108), (A-1662) and (A-1815) would allow for the automatic expungement of criminal records under certain circumstances, reduce the waiting period required for expungement applications, and create a commission to study whether expungements of convictions should be automatic and whether the expungement of multiple offenses should be allowed.

The first bill (A-206-471-1663-2879-3060-3108), sponsored by Green, Spencer, Gusciora, Johnson, McKeon, Giblin, Wimberly, Mainor, Watson Coleman and Quijano, would reduce the statutory waiting period for an expungement from 10 years to five years from the date of conviction, payment of fine, satisfactory completion of probation or parole, or release from incarceration, whichever is later, in the case of an indictable offense. In the case of a disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons offense, the waiting period would be reduced from five years to three years.

"Expungement offers an incentive against recidivism. It gives people who currently have little chance of finding legal employment the opportunity to leave past mistakes behind them, find a job and be productive," said Green (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union). "The fact of the matter is, the system is working against those individuals who have served their time and want to change and do better."

"A criminal record can affect a person's ability to secure housing, employment and even loans for school," said Spencer (D-Essex). "How is a person supposed to successfully reintegrate back into society when almost every road to self-dependence is blocked by a criminal record?

"Individuals who have learned from their mistakes should not be defined by their criminal records for the rest of their lives," said Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). "These folks are going back into our communities. It makes sense that we make it easier for them to become constructive citizens."

"Putting your life back together after being incarcerated can take time. It can take even longer with a criminal record looming over you," said Johnson (D-Bergen). "It is a greater benefit to society when these individuals are able to put their past behind them and lead better, more productive lives."

The bill would also grant automatic expungement of the records of a criminal conviction to certain persons who have completed a sentence to a term of special probation, commonly referred to as drug court. The court would be permitted to order the expungement of all records and information relating to all prior criminal arrests, detention, convictions and proceedings, provided the person satisfactorily completed a substance abuse treatment program as ordered by the court and was not convicted of any crime, or adjudged a disorderly person or petty disorderly person, during the term of special probation. An individual would not be eligible for automatic expungement if the records include a conviction for any offense barred from expungement under current law.

"Participants in drug court have a far lower recidivism rate than offenders who are incarcerated in state prisons," said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). "If we want these individuals to continue on the right path, then we have to give them the chance to do better instead of setting up roadblocks."

"There's no benefit to continually punish people who have served their time and now want to redeem themselves," said Giblin (D-Essex/Passaic). "We have to create opportunities for individuals who want to be productive members of society, which is very hard to do with a criminal record."

"These individuals successfully completed a substance abuse program. They did not break any laws while in the program. They have demonstrated a desire to be and do better," said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). "Expunging their criminal records can help them continue on the path to recovery."

Lastly, the bill would require the courts to order the expungement of all records and information pertaining to an arrest or charge at the time of the dismissal, acquittal or discharge. The bill would set forth certain procedural requirements for a grant of automatic expungement and no fee would be charged. When an expungement of an arrest or charge not resulting in conviction is not ordered by the court, the individual would be allowed, at any time following the disposition of the proceedings, to petition the courts for an expungement. The bill would provide that an expungement related to dismissal, acquittal or discharge would not bar any future expungement.

"It is unfair to further penalize an individual who has been cleared of a crime," said Mainor (D-Hudson). "A criminal record can create barriers that make it difficult to prosper. If a person is acquitted or their charges are dropped, then their criminal record should be immediately expunged."

"It is difficult enough to find employment in the current economic climate. It becomes that much harder with a criminal record," said Watson Coleman (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). "There is no reason why a criminal record against a person who's been cleared of wrongdoing should persist."

"The lingering effects of a criminal record can make the difference between successful reintegration and reentry. These individuals went through the judicial process and were absolved," said Quijano (D-Union). "The sooner their records are expunged, the sooner they can get back to normal."

The second bill (A-1662) would require that criminal records related to an identity theft case be sealed.

"Having to deal with the repercussions of a criminal record that resulted from an identity theft case adds insult to injury for victims," said Johnson (D-Bergen). "This allows victims to repair the damage caused by providing for the sealing of criminal records that were obtained erroneously."

"The damage caused by identity theft can be extensive. Add to that a criminal record and rebuilding becomes even more difficult," said Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic). "This ensures that an individual who has been victimized can avoid further damage to his name and livelihood."

"Identity theft can have serious consequences for a victim. A criminal record is just one of them," said Wimberly. "This bill allows people whose identities were stolen to have their criminal records sealed as they work to put their lives back together."

The third bill (A-1815) would establish the "Expungement Study Commission." The commission would be charged with studying whether expungement of convictions should be automatic, without the necessity for a petition to the Superior Court, and whether the expungement of multiple offenses should be allowed. The commission would include as part of its study an examination of the impact of a criminal conviction on various aspects of life for a convicted persons including, but not limited to, employment, licensing, housing and education. The commission would be required to submit a final report within 18 months after organizing to the governor and the Legislature. The commission would expire on the 30th day after the final report is issued.

"Not every criminal offender is destined to be a hardcore criminal," said Wilson (D-Camden/Gloucester). "If we are serious about rehabilitation and preventing reentry into the prison system, then we must look at how we can better help those individuals who want to start over."

"Many people who return to a life of crime blame their inability to find work due to their criminal history," said Tucker (D-Essex). "This may not apply to everyone who has committed a crime, but for those who genuinely want to change their lives around, it is worth looking into."

"A criminal record can haunt you for life," said Wimberly. "If we want to help people break the cycle, it makes sense to look into whether expungement should be extended to multiple offenses, and whether it is feasible to automatically expunge convictions after the relevant waiting periods are over."

The bills were released by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.