A New Jersey legislative debate over whether to legalize recreational marijuana is unexpectedly turning into a discussion about fairness in the criminal justice system and the role of race in hundreds of thousands of drug convictions over the decades, the New York Times reports. As lawmakers near approval of a marijuana legalization bill, they are weighing a groundbreaking companion measure that would clear the criminal records of many people with drug offenses. Ten other states and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized recreational marijuana, but none has addressed historic inequities in drug sentencing in tandem with legalization.
Supporters of the proposal to expunge criminal records say strict drug laws 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. Creating an efficient process for tossing out past convictions has become central to gaining support from lawmakers who represent predominantly African-American communities. “If expungement wasn’t a part of this, legalization wouldn’t happen. They wouldn’t have the votes for it,” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley, chairman of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus Foundation. “We represent minority communities and communities who have been impacted the most. This is very important to us.” Holley and Sen. Sandra Cunningham 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. The goal of the expungement effort is to address convictions that are hampering people who have stayed out of trouble after their conviction, such as a recovered heroin addict.