A couple of years ago, after the tragic killing of teenager Nicole Angstadt in Rio Grande, municipal and Cape May County officials looked hard at how former inmates use vouchers to stay at about 30 motels in the area. The challenge of reintegrating into society those who have completed the punishment for their crimes looks most daunting when a terrible crime occurs instead.
Two former state prisoners last week pleaded guilty to crimes related to the killing, one to first-degree aggravated manslaughter with a recommended sentence of at least 25 years back in prison.
By coincidence, the next day Gov. Chris Christie signed a trio of bills into law to make it easier for ex-offenders to get past the obstacles between them and finding employment, caring for their families and living without more crime and incarceration.
One new law increases the number and kind of offenses that may be expunged — removed without a trace — from a criminal record, including possession of up to an ounce of marijuana with the intent to sell. It also lets ex-offenders seek expungement earlier, six years instead of 10 after fully completing their sentences.
Another law allows a juvenile criminal record to be erased after three years instead of five.
The third law strengthens a protection for job-seeking ex-offenders called “Ban the Box.” That 2014 law bars employers from asking about a person’s criminal record on the initial job application. The new law extends the prohibition to screening initial applicants for crimes through online searches and to asking whether a person has an expunged criminal record.
When Christie signed Ban the Box, we were skeptical this tough-on-crime former prosecutor really believed his stated rationale that “no life is beyond salvation.” We suspected the signing was part of a deal with Democrats to get another bill that made it easier for judges to deny bail to violent offenders.
But since then, Christie’s actions have left no doubt about his sincerity. New Jersey’s bail reform is a national model, deciding pre-trail release based on the risk posed by the inmate rather than the cash they have available. He also has expanded drug courts for nonviolent offenders and created a combined drug-treatment facility and prison for addicted inmates.
The new bills will increase the number of ex-offenders in New Jersey who seek to have their records expunged, currently about 8,400 a year. That’s a good thing.
Giving people a second chance to build lives without the stigma of a criminal record creates a powerful incentive to stay right with the law. These laws will provide better second chances more quickly to more people who have committed minor criminal offenses.
They also add to an excellent part of Christie’s legacy, his leadership and accomplishments in criminal-justice reform.