Supporters of the proposal in New Jersey to expunge criminal records say strict drug laws in the state have long unfairly targeted minorities: A black New Jersey resident is three times more likely to be arrested on marijuana-related offenses than a white resident, a recent study found.Holley and Cunningham imagine a process whereby people who have been out of trouble for a decade can get old drug-related convictions erased from their record, but they would have to apply and be approved.
As Trenton begins to debate a marijuana bill approved on Monday by a joint legislative committee, creating an efficient process for tossing out past convictions has become central to gaining support from lawmakers who represent predominantly African-American communities. . . .
The bill that would make recreational marijuana legal also would pave the way for those with past convictions for small amounts of marijuana to have their records wiped clean. But some lawmakers want to go much further.
Mr. Holley and Senator Sandra B. Cunningham, a Democrat from Jersey City, are backing a plan aimed at clearing more serious drug convictions, including low-level sales of drugs other than marijuana, such as cocaine and heroin. Their proposal would also erase some other nonviolent convictions.
Erasing past convictions for something now legal seems reasonable to me, but I am cautious about broader expungement. Studies have shown that if employers can't get data on past legal trouble they become more racist, because they assume that black people are more likely to be criminals and people without records have no way to prove it.
More broadly this gets at the fundamental question of justice: can people reform? It seems to me that many sorts of convictions ought to be ignored after people have been clean for ten years, but a big faction in our country thinks that people who have done bad things can never be trusted.