Marijuana decriminalization and expungement have gotten the headlines in New Jersey lately, but those two issues are just the beginning of a broad social justice agenda being pushed forward by the black and Latino caucuses in the state Legislature.
On Thursday, several state lawmakers, along with faith leaders and social justice advocates, held a news conference in the Statehouse in Trenton detailing their plans and demanding action from Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders.
On top of stopping marijuana arrests and allowing more people to clear old convictions, lawmakers called for changes to youth justice and voting rights, and spoke about bills introduced to achieve those ends.
The current criminal justice system in New Jersey “is making black and brown people second-class citizens,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer, who is executive director of Salvation and Social Justice. He added that making these changes could be “the difference between life and death ... prosperity and poverty.”
Even though Murphy’s vision for marijuana legalization included social justice reforms, those plan have passed on their own since legalization was called off in May. Voters are now expected to be able to decide on legalization in November 2020.
But state Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, who has been calling for marijuana decriminalization for more than a year, now says that lawmakers shouldn’t wait for the legalization vote to act on the social justice elements of the plan.
“We need to downgrade that charge today," Rice said on Thursday about decriminalization. "We can’t wait until next year and see if a ballot initiative passes.”
Both Murphy and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, have said they don’t support marijuana decriminalization, though Rice said they have recently indicated that they could be willing to discuss the issue. Sweeney confirmed that on Thursday afternoon.
“I’m looking to sit down with him," Sweeney said. "I’m not there at this point, but I’m willing to listen.”
New Jersey police arrest more people for marijuana possession than every state except Texas and New York, FBI arrest data shows. In 2017, police in the state arrested 34,501 people for marijuana possession and 3,122 people for pot sales. That’s 2,500 more arrests for weed than in 2016.
Pot arrests don’t affect everyone in the state equally, either. New Jersey police arrest black people for marijuana possession at a rate three time higher than white people, despite similar pot usage rates between the groups, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
That disparity, it turns out, is just a symptom of a much bigger problem in the state.
The Garden State puts black residents behind bars at 12 times the rate of white residents, according to a 2016 report report from The Sentencing Project, though they noted that gap is expected to shrink thanks to recent changes to New Jersey’s sentencing laws.
Nationally, that disparity is closer to 5-to-1, the report found.
“The time is now for comprehensive criminal justice reform in New Jersey,” said Andrea McChristian, director of the Criminal Justice Reform Institute at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “On the youth justice front, our state has the worst black to white youth incarceration disparity rate in the nation.”
Rice and state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, have introduced a bill that would close youth detention facilities and develop a transition plan for the kids held there.
Other bills discussed on Thursday’s social justice agenda would stop arrests for the possession of less than 2 ounces of pot and make it easier for more people to clear old convictions, including marijuana convictions.
Lawmakers wouldn’t talk about a timeline for these bills to pass the Legislature, and it’s unlikely that they would get done before the state’s budget deadline of June 30. Rice, though, said he would be pushing for these reforms, no matter the cost.
“We’re going to have to come together, find common ground and compel it,” Rice said.