A measure Gov. Phil Murphy signed Wednesday morning will allow individuals with certain marijuana convictions to wipe those offenses from their criminal record, even though the actions would still be criminal offenses and warrant arrest while the state awaits the results of a voter ballot question in the 2020 presidential election on whether or not to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana.
As a result, legislative leadership and Murphy have proposed a stopgap measure to decriminalize possession of certain amounts of marijuana. The governor, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, had been hesitant to approve decriminalization, worried that it would embolden the black market.
That changed once Senate leadership conceded in late November they could not garner enough votes in the upper house to pass a legalization bill, and opted instead to put the matter before voters.
But the Wednesday morning bill-signing in Newark was a cheerful and festive occasion, which Murphy framed as a “historic day for social justice.”
“We are giving New Jersey one of the most progressive expungement laws in the nation, allowing more people to fully participate in our society and our economy,” Murphy said.
The measure signed Wednesday – Assembly Bill 5981 – establishes an automatic “clean slate” system for most nonviolent crimes, which was desired by Murphy and will eventually replace the expungement process enacted under the measure. It will seal cannabis-related offenses after 10 years and make them inaccessible to most of the public.
Murphy sought that change when he sent A5981 back to the Legislature in August, and in an editorial interview with NJBIZ that month called his proposal “de facto decriminalization” because they would be inaccessible.
Possession of up to 5 pounds of marijuana will be expungable under the new law. The Legislature would set aside $15 million for the Department of Law and Public Safety to handle the implementation of these changes to the criminal justice system. It also reduces the waiting period before a person could apply for expungement, removes application fees and enables people to file for expungement online.
The elimination of the filing fees, the appropriation of the $15 million and the creation of the task force all take effect immediately. Everything else takes effect in six months, on June 18, 2020.
“I was a teenager, we all were. But for the grace of God I thought I was invincible and I did dumb things. You don’t realize how in 10 seconds your life can ultimately change,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-29th District, said Wednesday.
“The consequences that follow someone after that… didn’t matter if they were raising their family the right way, didn’t matter is she was hustling through her three jobs… didn’t matter if she spent years showing people that she had turned her life around,” Ruiz added.
Murphy on Wednesday also signed Assembly Bill 5823, which restores a person’s right to vote upon the completion of their prison sentence, and gives that right to those serving parole or probation.
“We have to do something to give people a second chance,” added Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-31st District. “That’s what this is about… giving people a second chance.”