City of Newark Teams Up With Volunteer Lawyers for Justice to Expand Expungement Services for Essex County Residents With Criminal Records

Top Quote New Laws Cut Waiting Periods and Increase Range of Expungeable Offenses; VLJ Provides Pro Bono Legal Services. End Quote
  • Newark, NJ (1888PressRelease) September 10, 2010 - Mayor Cory A. Booker, Corporation Counsel Julien X. Neals, the City of Newark's Office of Reentry, and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice/Newark Reentry Legal Services ("ReLeSe") Executive Director Karen Sacks announced today that changes in State expungement procedures will make it easier for the City of Newark and Newark Reentry Legal Services (ReLeSe) to provide ex-offenders with faster expungement of their criminal records.

    In March, New Jersey legislation went into effect amending longstanding regulations regarding what can be expunged and the waiting period that must expire before a petition to expunge can be filed. New Jersey previously had some of the longest waiting periods for the expungement of eligible offenses, exacerbated by the strict requirement of the payment of fines before the waiting period even commenced, and was one of very few states that barred from expungement nonviolent drug offenses. The new law makes third and fourth degree drug offenses expungeable and, when in the public interest, reduces the waiting period for the expungement of certain offenses from 10 years to five years.

    "Since taking office in July 2006, my administration has made ex-offender reentry a central pillar of our efforts to create a stronger, prouder, and better Newark," Mayor Booker said. "Unless we offer actual rehabilitation - jobs, counseling, training, restoration of driver's licenses and other opportunities to enable these men and women to become productive members of the community - we will not eradicate crime in Newark, and merely continue and expand a destructive cycle of recidivism that leaves pain and tragedy in its wake. This legislation by the State enables us and our partners to help these ex-offenders help themselves, and build a stronger, safer, better, and prouder Newark."

    "This legislation will allow hundreds, if not thousands, of deserving individuals to make a fresh start," remarked Karen Sacks, the founding executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice ("VLJ"). "People who were told that their one-time mistakes were permanent can finally put those mistakes behind them and move on with their lives," she said.

    Volunteer Lawyers for Justice is a comprehensive pro bono program for New Jersey, based in Newark. The program's mission is to improve the lives of economically disadvantaged adults, children and families in New Jersey by empowering them with the tools, advice and pro bono representation to obtain fair and equal treatment within the legal system.

    "The combination of the new legislation and the ReLeSe program will help many returning offenders break the cycle of recidivism, and enable them to become productive citizens," said City of Newark Corporation Counsel Julien X. Neals, who sits on the VLJ's Steering Committee. "We will be able to restore and repair lives."

    "The new law creates job opportunities and career paths for people with criminal records and will make it easier for our office to help individuals find employment," said Ingrid Johnson, Chair of the City's Reentry Initiatives. "Employment is the cornerstone of Mayor Booker's re-entry programs, and employment is proven to reduce recidivism."

    The day after the new legislation took effect, ReLeSe filed an expungement petition in Essex County Superior Court for Kerry Sifford, a ReLeSe client who was previously ineligible under the old expungement law. ReLeSe staff members had been reviewing old case files and identifying eligible individuals in anticipation of the legislative changes.

    In January 2002, Mr. Sifford was convicted of a disorderly persons offense and unlawful possession of a weapon due to an accidental discharge in his home. He paid all fines and penalties associated with this conviction and successfully completed his probation in January 2003. As a result of this record though, he has been unable to find employment in his previous line of work, security, despite an active job search. Mr. Sifford has since gone back to school and graduated from Katherine Gibbs School with an associate's degree in computer graphics.

    "It's been a long, hard road since my conviction," said Mr. Sifford, who has been providing computer services to St. James Church in Newark on a volunteer basis for several years. "The opportunity to expunge my record two years earlier than I ever thought possible is like a breath of fresh air. I am extremely grateful for the help of ReLeSe in making this happen."

    In early June, Mr. Sifford's expungement petition was granted, and a judge signed the final order. Ms. DeVito has since served the final order to law enforcement agencies, officially clearing Mr. Sifford's name.

    "I can't tell you how difficult it was to turn away people like Mr. Sifford, who have old, one-time convictions and have paid many times over for it. ReLeSe is delighted to begin helping these formerly ineligible clients start anew," said Gina DeVito, Managing Attorney of ReLeSe. "Individuals interested in the ReLeSe program can call our office to learn more about the process and we will work with them to find a community referral partner."

    ReLeSe, a program of VLJ created through a public/private partnership between the City of Newark, the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice, VLJ, Seton Hall University Law School and private attorneys, assists ex-offenders with legal issues serving as barriers to successful community reintegration.

    The City of Newark's Office of Reentry, located in City Hall, Room 113, is dedicated to serving formerly incarcerated individuals and assisting them with a successful transition back to their families and communities. One of the Office of Reentry's largest programs, the Newark Prisoner Reentry Initiative (NPRI), which is funded in part by a $2 million grant from the United States Department of Labor, has served more than 1,200 people and placed more than 625 in jobs. Fewer than 10 percent of the NPRI participants have recidivated. Additionally, the Office of Reentry sponsors the Clean and Green transitional jobs program, which places formerly incarcerated individuals in "green" transitional jobs performing horticultural work in public spaces and abandoned lots throughout the City.

    For information about any City of Newark program or policy, contact the Non-Emergency Call Center at (973) 733-4311              (973) 733-4311      .

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