N.J. Lets Some Pot Convictions Go in Step Toward Legalization

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(Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation to expunge the criminal records of low-level marijuana offenders and to restore voting rights for more than 80,000 convicts.

Murphy, a Democrat who took office in January 2018, hailed the bills as a hallmark of his progressive agenda and a fresh start for thousands of residents whose records have hampered job and housing searches. The laws were welcomed by civil-rights groups, urban mayors and religious leaders.

The bills were sponsored by a group of Democratic legislators whose constituents include minority residents disproportionately hit by marijuana arrests. Some offenders had told lawmakers about minor possession cases that profoundly damaged their life’s course, even if they had stayed out of trouble for years after their convictions.

New Jerseyans, who overwhelmingly support recreational marijuana for adults, will vote in November on a constitutional change that would allow it even as federal law bans the drug. Lawmakers and Murphy endorsed the ballot after a legislative approach bogged down for almost two years.

The marijuana law signed Wednesday allows low-level convicts to petition for expungement so long as they have stayed free of criminal offenses for at least 10 years. The records of future minor offenders will be sealed upon the case’s disposition.

Voting Rights

Another law signed Wednesday, to take effect in 90 days, will allow voting by more than 80,000 New Jerseyans who are on probation or parole. At least 16 states have similar laws, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

“Our administration is deeply committed to transforming our criminal justice system, and today we are taking a historic step to give residents impacted by that system a second chance,” Murphy, 62, said in a statement. He called the marijuana legislation “one of the most progressive expungement laws in the nation.”

Some Republicans who voted against the marijuana bill said it would lead to increased use, particularly among youngsters, after decades of anti-drug education. Critics of restoring voting rights have said that criminals first should complete their sentences, including parole or probation, and satisfy any financial obligations related to their crimes.

Murphy’s action was lauded by Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, the state’s largest city, and one of his predecessors, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who is running for president. Samuel Plumeri Jr., chairman of the state parole board, said offenders will be “more empowered to contribute in positive ways.” The legislation also was endorsed by the state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“People who over the long haul of the years have been deemed invisible and marginalized have been made visible again by way of the work done by civil-rights advocates and social justice-minded legislators,” Safeer Quraishi, administrative director of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, said in a statement.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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