Burlington County Times' David Levinsky Reports
Declaring New Jersey to be a state that “believes in second chances,” the Democratic governor signed both measures on Wednesday, just two days after they were approved by the state Legislature.
NEWARK — Gov. Phil Murphy did not wait long to sign into law legislation that will make it easier for people convicted of nonviolent crimes and low-level drug offenses to get their records expunged and another allowing convicts on parole or probation to vote.
Declaring New Jersey to be a state that “believes in second chances,” the Democratic governor signed both measures Wednesday, just two days after they were approved by the state Legislature.
“Today is a big one. Today is a historic day for historic justice,” Murphy said during the bill signing ceremony at Newark’s One-Stop Career Center.
Both measures were hailed as landmark criminal justice reforms that had been pushed for by social justice advocates and reformers.
The expungement measure creates a so-called “clean slate” process that would clear the records of people convicted of nonviolent and low-level crimes provided they have committed no new offenses for 10 years. It also requires low-level marijuana convictions to be sealed after the case is disposed and for state courts to develop an automated expungement system where records of conviction are automatically cleared without an application.
The automated system was requested by Murphy when he conditionally vetoed an earlier version of the bill this summer.
Lawmakers responded by rewriting the measure and approving it a second time. It requires a task force be formed to study how to develop an automated system, including the technology required and fiscal hurdles.
The new law also requires the state to create an e-filing system, and it eliminates filing fees for expungement petitions. It appropriates $15 million to speed the processing of applications.
“I’m proud we’re giving New Jersey one of the most progressive expungement laws in the nation,” said Murphy, who was recently named the new chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
“We’re a state that believes in second chances. We’re a state that is stronger when we allow people to move forward and allow them to fully use their God-given talents to their fullest potential,” the governor said. “Who hasn’t made a mistake, for crying out loud?”
Murphy also said he was proud to restore the voting rights of some 80,000 convicts currently on parole or probation.
He and other advocates had pressed for the change, arguing that it is a critical civil rights matter given the disproportionate numbers of minorities who are incarcerated and that allowing convicts to participate in elections will also help them with their re-entry back into society.
Almost half the people denied the vote in New Jersey are black, compared to only 15% of the population, according to social justice advocates.
Eighteen other states have similar laws allowing people on parole and probation to vote.
“This is the right thing to do,” the governor said. “Our democracy is stronger when more people can participate.”
The law takes effect in 90 days or no later than March next year, which means those currently on parole or probation will be permitted to vote in next year’s presidential election. Convicts still behind bars in jails or prisons will still not be permitted to vote, though social justice advocates have pushed for it to be extended to that population.
“On this historic day, New Jersey has lifted my colleague Ron Pierce — a veteran, husband and college graduate — and 83,000 ghosts of democracy out of the shadows so that they can finally be seen, heard and represented,” said Ryan P. Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
Daamin Durden, who is a mentor in Newark, also spoke at the ceremony, sharing his own experiences as a convict who benefited from a second chance.
“There’s a great power in second chances but there often aren’t enough of them,” he said. “I’m honored to work every day with young men and women who are determined to make a better life and a better Newark. To move from the hell-raisers to the helpful. To move from the cursed and the menace to the mentors and the miracles.”
Murphy’s social justice agenda also includes legalizing marijuana for recreational use, a move he believes will help reduce the number of minorities arrested for drug possession.
New Jersey voters will decide that issue next November after lawmakers successfully voted to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot to legalize the drug.
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