Black Lives Matter makes clear need for expungement reform
On July 9, NJ.com reported on the struggle of New Jersey resident Kenneth Jones, whose efforts to clear his criminal record have been stymied by a backlog in the New Jersey courts that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus. The then-14-month delay has inhibited his ability to get a better job or find more suitable housing.
His story is similar to that of many people of color and other minorities in New Jersey and nationwide. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has surged in recent months, leading to talk of defunding or radically reforming policing. But these measures won’t repair the damage already done to many minorities who suffer under the stigma of a criminal record, which in thousands of cases exists solely due to one-time offenses for petty crimes and misdemeanors. These criminal records can not only scar one’s self-esteem, but also create barriers that impede basic opportunities to advance in society, including employment, housing, education and more. To fix this will require serious expungement reform, and New Jersey can lead the charge.
Forty-two states in the United States allow individuals to seal or “expunge” their criminal records. Yet very few take advantage of this. As recently as late 2019, New Jersey passed new laws making the expungement process easier. Some lucky individuals could have their record cleared after only three years. But even three years can seem like a lifetime if one cannot find employment or safe and affordable housing.
Even worse, three years is a best-case scenario — five or six years are more common. And this is assuming that everything goes smoothly. Remember, New Jersey’s expungement process is suffering from a major backlog caused by outdated systems and coronavirus-induced staffing challenges.
Delays extend punishment
A comprehensive study by Rosenblum Law of New Jersey reveals that New Jersey is not the easiest state when it comes to having one’s criminal record expunged. The fact remains that any kind of waiting period is a de facto additional jail sentence for those individuals who often have only committed a low-level offense. While recent headlines have been all about police reform, true criminal justice must also include reasonable expungement laws.
Criminal records disproportionately impact the poor and people of color. According to the NAACP, African Americans are twice as likely to lose a job over the same convictions as whites. Two separate studies by the National Institute for Justice found that 17% of white Americans with convictions received callbacks for jobs, compared to 5% for African Americans. Overall, having a criminal record reduced the likelihood of getting a job by two-thirds for African Americans. The same studies also showed that Hispanic and Latino Americans suffered similar penalties for a criminal record. Ethnic disparities in the justice system are even more evident when we examine marijuana offenses and their impact on criminal records.
In addition to unfairly impacting these ethnic groups, expungement laws penalize the follies of youth. How many of us have made missteps when we were younger? Yet as we matured and looked back on our actions, we were able to acknowledge that we’d used poor judgment at the time and are now sincerely remorseful. New Jersey’s significant waiting period before records can be cleared ensures the record hangs over the heads of Black men and women far beyond the sentence.
Limiting job opportunities
Regardless of the crime and when it was committed, a criminal conviction of any kind can close doors on job opportunities. It can also limit housing and educational opportunities. According to the research from the advocacy group the Sentencing Project, more than 60% of formerly incarcerated individuals are still unemployed one year after release. Those who do manage to find jobs take home 40% less pay on average.
A closer look reveals that individuals who’ve successfully had their records expunged can turn their lives around. An article featured in the Harvard Law Review found that those who received expungements saw earnings increase by 20%, as unemployed persons found work and minimally employed persons landed steadier jobs.
Expunging records can also lower crime rates. Harvard University research shows that after age 26 people convicted of crimes are far less likely to commit another crime if they have at least full-time, minimum-wage jobs.
The vast majority of those who have served their time, as proven by multiple studies, are far less likely to commit additional crimes after receiving an expungement.
Since we all agree that Black Lives Matter, let’s not just pay lip service to the concept but act swiftly to remove one of the single greatest barriers to equal opportunity. We can help others get a clean start and sooner, by not only shining a light on the benefits of expungement but by lobbying politicians to make these long-overdue changes.
Adam H. Rosenblum is the founding attorney of Rosenblum Law, P.C., a general law practice with offices in Bloomfield, New Jersey, New York City, Albany and Buffalo.
Cornelius “Cornbread” Givens
Cornelius “Cornbread” Givens (1931–2008), usually known as Cornbread Givens, was a civil rights leader and a national advocate for cooperatives. He was also known as the first African American to run for mayor of a major US city, Jersey City, New Jersey.
Cornbread was born in Jersey City. From 15 to 18 years old, he was stationed in the South Pacific. n 1952, he and Alma Montgomery married. They had two children, Kevin and Pamela. During the early 1960s, Givens owned his own home remodeling business.
In 1961, Givens began his political career in the New Frontier Political Democratic Club, which began running African American political candidates. By 1963, Givens was president of the club and promised to run an African American for mayor of Jersey City in two years. In 1965, Givens ran for mayor of Jersey City. His campaign platform included federally-financed factories run by African Americans, history books reflecting a more accurate understanding of African American contributions, funds to rehabilitate neighborhoods and build middle-class cooperatives, and rent control. He came in sixth out of seven contenders.
Givens committed his life to building anti-poverty organizations run by poor people like himself. He said, “One day when I was 13, I grew so sick of poverty that I cried. I vowed then the next generation would not endure what I had to suffer. From 1964, he worked for CAN DO, an anti-poverty organization that trained teenage boys to do construction. Then, he formed Poverty Organization of Rehabilitation (POOR) and Grass Rooters Interested in Poverty Elimination (GRIPE)
Givens became a leader in the Poor People’s Campaign. Mayor John Lindsey appointed Givens New York coordinator of the campaign. During Resurrection City, a multiracial group, including Givens, decided that America’s poor needed its own “embassy,” a Poor People’s Embassy in Washington, DC. From this embassy, Givens launched the Poor People’s Development Foundation (PPDF), which sought to help poor communities develop cooperatives. From 1969, Givens was the president and the board included Chicano activist Reies Tijerina, native activist Tillie Walker, and Black Panther Mark Comfort. By 1971, PPDF worked on establishing farm cooperatives in the South and linking them to northern consumers, as well as supporting community control of urban renewal efforts in Chicago. The farm cooperatives formed in response to the backlash against the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Southern tenant farmers who decided to register to vote were, in retaliation, evicted from their tenant farms. Givens and PPDF worked to connect Southern farmers’ cooperatives with consumer food cooperatives, farmers’ markets, health food stores, and collective warehouses, which he set up around Newark, NJ and New York City. Members of the PPDF trucked food up to Newark and New York City to be sold in farmers’ markets and health food stores.
When Mayor Marion Barry was elected as mayor of Washington, DC, Givens moved to Washington, DC. By May 1980, Barry made Givens chairperson of his new Commission on Cooperative Economic Development, which aimed to make Washington, DC, a demonstration city for cooperative development. Givens envisioned cooperatives as a way to forge economic and political power among low- and moderate-income residents. Givens created an entire development model in which each community would have: 1) producer cooperatives (particularly important for job creation, 2) consumer cooperatives, 3) credit unions, 4) low-income housing cooperatives, and 5) a community cooperative funded by profits from the other cooperatives to develop social programs like schools, hospitals, and child development centers. He understood these cooperatives as necessarily working together. This model would also require assistance at the national level, such as from the National Cooperative Bank, which he helped form.
n 1985, Givens told FBI agents about phony contracts that DC government employee Ivanhoe Donaldson had run through Givens’ organization. Donaldson eventually was sentenced to seven years for his embezzlement and fined. Givens was never charged with any wrongdoing.
Givens spent the rest of his life advocating for cooperatives. DC Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon helped Givens establish the University of the District of Columbia‘s Center for Cooperatives.
This tells the story of the man Cornelius “Cornbread” Givens but I knew him as a person a friend and a teacher he talked about his plans how my brother and I should look at things I remember when he told us it is not just owning but having access not being blocked.
We spent a lot of time together seeing he knew my brother and I from birth we worked with him on funding for the black athlete hall of fame and political campaigns but we knew him as family my Great Grand Mother was his fathers sister.