New Jersey steps out as Reintegration Champion of 2019

Editors’ note: CCRC recently released its report on 2019 criminal record reforms, which recognized New Jersey as the “Reintegration Champion” of 2019, for having the most consequential legislative record of any state in the past year.  The following comment describes New Jersey’s laws enacted in 2019.  New Jersey’s various restoration of rights laws are further described in the state’s profile in the CCRC Restoration of Rights Project.

In December 2019, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law S4154, now L.2019, c.269, as part of his Second Chance Agenda.  The law is a strong step towards criminal justice reform, and places New Jersey on the map as a leader in expungement policy.  Along with easing access to the existing expungement process,  it creates a new “clean slate” system that provides for expungement of all but the most serious violent offenses after ten years. It additionally sets in motion a process aiming to automate all clean slate expungements.  The substantive provisions of the law are set to go into effect on June 15, 2020, and we anticipate a large increase in expungements following its implementation.

The law’s improvements include increased eligibility for expungement and reduced barriers to access (though certain violent offenses, such as murder, robbery, and sexual assault, will remain ineligible.)  Changes include:

  • The waiting period required between the most recent conviction and expungement eligibility as a matter of course is reduced from six to five years. (The waiting period begins, as under old law, with completion of the most recent sentence, including payment of any court-ordered financial assessments.)
  • Where the applicant can show “compelling reasons” to begin the expungement process early, the waiting period is reduced from five to four years.
  • The number of disorderly persons offenses that can be expunged in a lifetime is increased from four to five.
  • All non-convictions, including dismissals and acquittals, will be automatically expunged at the time of disposition, eliminating a requirement that a defendant file a petition with the court.  (This provision does not appear to apply retroactively.)
  • Prior convictions for indictable offenses (felonies) will no longer bar relief, as long as the conviction for which expungement is sought is an eligible offense. Only the most recent conviction may be expunged in these cases, which may yield inconsistent results based on the order of convictions; but the relaxation of the bar on expungements for those with prior indictable offenses will nonetheless have a positive result compared to previous law.

In addition to changes in eligibility, the new law allows more individuals access to expungement by eliminating expungement filing fees.  It also directs the Administrative Office of the Courts to develop an e-filing system within 12 months, which will accomplish automatically all of the document production and service requirements in connection with the petition-based expungement process, thus eliminating another substantial barrier to access.

By far the most notable innovation of the law, however, is the creation of a “clean slate” system.  Under this system, individuals who are ineligible for expungement solely because of the limits in existing law on the number of allowable offenses, will be eligible for expungement of all eligible offenses after a ten-year conviction-free waiting period.  In addition, a prior expungement will no longer defeat eligibility.

Though this clean slate process will be put into effect in June with the rest of the statute’s substantive provisions, allowing individuals to petition the courts for relief immediately, the law additionally requires the creation of an automated system to streamline the clean slate process.  A task force was created at the end of last year in order to bring the automated provision of the law into effect, and its comprehensive report is due in June.  The automated process for expunging convictions will be only the fourth like it in the country to be authorized, following Pennsylvania, Utah, and, just last fall, California.

In addition to the ten-year full expungement, certain drug offenses relating to possession or distribution of marijuana or hashish will be considered disorderly persons offenses for expungement purposes, and the court will have discretion to grant an expungement on application immediately after completion of sentence.  Further, within three months of the law’s effective date, the Administrative Office of the Courts must create a system for automatically “sealing” such records at the time of disposition, eliminating the need for application for expungement of such offenses at all.

The new law’s enactment was the result of collaboration and continued efforts from Governor Murphy and key legislative leaders including Senator Sandra Cunningham, who spearheaded the bill from its inception.  It is part of a larger effort on the part of the Murphy administration and legislative advocates to improve criminal justice in the state, and it comes amid a number of similar bills that will significantly reduce the collateral consequences of conviction.

Other new 2019 laws promoting reintegration are S1080, eliminating automatic driver’s license suspensions for certain non-moving violations, and a voting rights restoration act, both also signed in December 2019.  In passing the voting rights law, which restores the right to vote to more than 80,000 New Jersey residents on parole and probation, New Jersey joins 16 other states and the District of Columbia in restoring voting rights following incarceration.  Continuing in the same vein, the Earn Your Way Out Act, just signed last month by Governor Murphy, ensures that the Department of Corrections develops reentry plans for all inmates prior to release, and accelerates  parole release for people convicted of certain nonviolent crimes..

Last fall, the New Jersey Reentry Services Commission, co-chaired by former Governor Jim McGreevey and facilitated by the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), published a report summarizing 100 policies aimed at improving the reentry process for individuals returning from incarceration.  Many of these recommendations have been adopted or are being considered for this coming year, signaling further moves in the right direction for the state.

Kathryn Forkey

Kathryn Forkey is a research consultant for the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), which provides for critically needed services to assist persons returning from incarceration to successfully reintegrate into society. During her time at the NJRC, Kathryn has authored a number of reentry reports, and she contributes to reentry best practice research, grant writing, communication, and program development. Kathryn is presently a first-year law student at Yale Law School.

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