New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy recently signed  a clean slate bill that has opened up new opportunities for millions of residents who have been involved in the justice system. Other states should follow this action by crafting their own ways to provide these citizens with second chances.
The New Jersey bill is powerful because it combines expungement, or the clearing of a criminal record, with automation. For residents who have not committed an offense in a decade, the law will expunge several offenses, including marijuana charges affecting the nearly one million individuals convicted of marijuana related offenses since 1990. The law also does so automatically, meaning individuals will no longer have to be aware that they are eligible and take steps to petition a court for an expungement.
Expungements are indeed powerful tools for helping those with criminal records get back up on their feet. These Americans are some of the most heavily stigmatized individuals in our society. A criminal record creates barriers to housing, education, and certainly employment. Studies have indicated that having a criminal record could reduce the likelihood of receiving a call back from a potential employer  by perhaps 50 percent.
Expungements are as close as people can get to a silver bullet when it comes to improving their chances of successfully back reintegrating into society. Once minor records are expunged, individuals can more easily find work, enabling them to provide for themselves and for their families. Expungements not only improve job prospects, they also improve wages. After expungement of a criminal record, wages increase  by 25 percent on average. Perhaps most importantly here, becoming gainfully employed dramatically cuts down the chances that these individuals will reoffend.
When individuals can have their records expunged, everyone in society benefits. About a third of Americans have a criminal record  and are given a fair chance at being hired. Employers, who often find individuals with records to be some of the most loyal and productive employees, gain a larger pool of potential workers to choose from when hiring. Individuals and their families benefit from receiving a regular paycheck. Parents find restoration in work and dignity that improves the future prospects of their children. Our economy benefits when unemployed and underemployed individuals transform into productive workers, taxpayers, and consumers.
It is unfortunate that only about 6 percent of eligible individuals  actually apply for an expungement. This is why the automation part of the New Jersey clean slate law is key. While most charges can be expunged, many individuals do not apply simply because they do not know expungement exists. Even if they do know, the process is costly and cumbersome, and determining eligibility is not always straightforward. But with automation, more individuals could access expungement, and taxpayers could avoid paying for a process we have already decided that individuals deserve.
Murphy originally vetoed the bill because he wanted to ensure it went far enough and had the infrastructure for full implementation. The revised legislation, which he signed last month and will go into effect this year, includes a new electronic filing system, the appointment of a task force, and a $15 million budget to hire workers needed to automate the system.
Funding might be the largest concern other states have in passing their own legislation. Leaders might wonder how much will it cost the state and how they can build an infrastructure to make record clearance automatic. Many states have decentralized hard copy records, stored across different courthouses and law enforcement agencies, so implementing clean slate can pose challenges. Thankfully, organizations like Code for America have created core technology that will help make the process much smoother.
Despite the initial costs, automating expungements can likely save money in the long run. One study found that the cost to clear each record in an automated system  is around five cents. This is much less expensive than the costs for each record in a model based on petitions, which when time is included, is estimated to be in the thousands. Thus, this challenge, like so many others in the criminal justice system, is surmountable with strong political will. New Jersey and two other states have already found a way to pass clean slate legislation, and others like Michigan are poised to follow. A bipartisan bill was even introduced at the federal level two years ago.
States would do well to recognize that a criminal conviction should not be a life sentence to poverty and stigma. Such clean slate measures promise to help reintegrate people into their communities, improve public safety, and help the economy thrive. With so many states now back in session, drafting clean slate legislation is the perfect way to start the new year.
- “recently signed”: https://www.nj.gov/governor/news/news/562019/approved/20191218a.shtml
- “potential employer”: https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/employment-after-incarceration-ban-box-and-racial-discrimination
- “wages increase”: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/opinion/expunge-criminal-records.html
- “criminal record”: https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/just-facts-many-americans-have-criminal-records-college-diplomas
- “eligible individuals”: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/opinion/expunge-criminal-records.html
- “automated system”: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3265335