If recreational marijuana is legalized for adults in the Garden State, what should happen to the hundreds of thousands of people who have faced criminal charges and sometimes served jail sentences for possessing or smoking pot?

That was the subject of a special hearing at the Statehouse in Trenton on Monday.

Amol Sinha, exective director of the ACLU of New Jersey, told members of the Assembly Judiciary committee the reform of our marijuana laws “is a civil rights priority,” and when recreational pot becomes legal it’s critically important to expunge the records of those charged with minor marijuana convictions.

He said over the past decade hundreds of thousands of people have been arrested on marijuana charges in New Jersey, costing the state more than $1 billion, and “90 percent of these arrests are of everyday people, for small amounts of marijuana possession.”

“Expungements are a matter of racial, social and economic justice. Black New Jerseyans are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites," he said.

He added black individuals are disproportionally arrested for pot in every single county in New Jersey, but “in some shore towns, black New Jerseyans were arrested (for marijuana) at a rate of 31.8 times their white counterparts.”

That's an apparent reference to an ACLU finding that in Point Pleasant Beach in 2013, the disparity reached that level -- higher than any other municipality the group studied.

He said expungements must take place “as a matter of simple fairness and decency.”

Sinha said a single marijuana arrest and conviction can have devastating life-long consequences.

“You can face up to 6 months in jail. You can face fines and fees of more than $1,500. You can be evicted from public housing,” he said. “You can have immigration consequences up to deportation. You can be banned from adoption. And you’re disqualified from professional occupations and licensure in many, many industries.”

He also told the panel right now expunging a criminal record is “costly and onerous,” ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars, and can take a year or longer.

Alyson Jones, the legislative liaison of the New Jersey Judiciary, said expunging arrest and conviction records from before 1980 would be “very challenging” because those records are not in the state’s computer system and have to be tracked down manually, which can be difficult.

She also said people who had been charged with multiple crimes, for instance theft and possession of marijuana, cannot have their drug convictions expunged because the charges are tied together legally.

Jon-Henry Barr, the former president of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association and a municipal prosecutor in Clark, supports an expedited expungement process.

He said sending someone to jail for a small quantity of marijuana serves no purpose at all.

“It simply doesn’t do anything to advance our interest as New Jerseyans, or as society in general," he said.

He said cases involving people who are caught with a small amount of pot get very frustrating because “the disobeyance of this particular law is so pervasive that I’m really not doing society any good by asking for a jail term.”

A measure sponsored by Assemblyman Annette Quijano (D-Union) has been introduced and is being considered in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

It calls for an expedited expungement process for certain marijuana-released offenses to be enacted if a measure legalizing recreational pot for adults becomes law.

The bill calls for anyone who has been charged with buying, possessing, using or being under the influence of a small quantity of marijuana to be eligible for automatic expungement. It also would establish an “Expungement Coordinator Program” to help people file for expungement.

Additionally, the measure would require the administrative director of the courts to develop and maintain a public awareness campaign about the program.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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