The marijuana legalization package now before the Legislature seeks to make expungements of past drug convictions simpler, quicker and more expansive.

But it won’t make them automatic, even if eligibility for such relief will be.

The main bill due to be considered by Senate and Assembly committees Monday would make people eligible to seek an “expedited expungement” in Superior Court and creates an e-filing system by early 2020. A companion bill makes more people eligible to erase their records once they go 10 years without a conviction.

On his public radio call-in show Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy said that’s the most that can be done.

“As much as we’d like this to be automatic, and that’s what a lot of folks including yours truly wanted, there really isn’t any feasible way to do that,” Murphy said. “So if you’ve got a conviction, you’re got to take an affirmative step to get that expunged. And we have to set up a system for that.”

State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said some of the revenues derived from marijuana taxes will be dedicated to streamlining the expungement process.

“It’s an onerous process,” Scutari said. “It’s not like a computer where you go ‘Bing!’ and it’s all gone. We don’t have a centralized system, so that’s why it’s a system that is onerous in terms of its paperwork.”

The bill specifies that for the purposes of determining eligibility to apply to the Superior Court for expungement of records, certain lower-level drug crimes will be downgraded to disorderly persons offenses or no longer considered a conviction.

Even without an expungement, the bill would restore a person’s right to vote and driving privileges, if those were revoked or suspended only over a drug conviction, and exempts lower-level drug crimes on a criminal record from public records disclosure.

Murphy said the bill’s “virtual expungement” is a “very attractive” part of the bill.

Just as race, gender, religion, ethnicity, whatever, can’t be used against you for housing or a job or education, it will be in that same category until that individual takes that affirmative step and pursues the expungement,” he said.

The bill gives people a year to sue if they want to allege discrimination based on a prior drug arrest or conviction on a charge for something that’s no longer illegal. People face fines up to $2,000 for a first instance of discrimination and $5,000 for subsequent instances.

A separate bill being “tie-barred” to the marijuana bill – meaning that one can’t become law unless the other is also approved – would also expand the number of people eligible for expungement.

Under the companion bill, former inmates with multiple convictions on their record would become eligible to apply online for them to be erased once they go 10 years without being charged with a crime.

“That will be what, what we’re being told, probably one of the most expansive expungement programs in the nation,” Sweeney said.


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