On December 27, 2020, New Jersey officially legalized cannabis for recreational use. Since that time, the state has been moving slowly as it decides how to regulate the industry. Now, advocacy groups are urging NJ Governor Phil Murphy to release cannabis offenders who are still imprisoned in the state.
Last month, a coalition led by the Last Prisoner Project published an open letter pushing for Governor Murphy to grant categorical clemency to all who are still incarcerated due to marijuana-related offenses that are no longer considered illegal. “The state of New Jersey is projected to bring in up to $173.5 million a year in tax revenue from the sale of legal cannabis,” the letter reads. “While the cannabis industry is on the cusp of becoming a booming business in New Jersey, hundreds still languish in state prison or continue to suffer the collateral consequences of a cannabis-related offense in the state.”
The Last Prisoner Project is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Colorado, one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. Founded in 2019, the group focuses its efforts on cannabis criminal justice reform. Their website says some 40,000 inmates nationwide are still incarcerated over cannabis-related activities that are no longer illegal and, in fact, are now being practiced by others to amass wealth.
Some Progress Has Been Made
While implementing new industry regulations has been slow (the state is set to miss two self-imposed deadlines already this year), New Jersey is making other efforts to readminister justice in light of the new laws. Since cannabis became legal for recreational use in New Jersey, more than 1/3 of marijuana convictions have already been expunged after a decriminalization law went into effect last July—affecting more than 360,000 cases. However, there are many other cases to be expunged or resentenced under the new laws, and meanwhile, many offenders are still serving time, including those who were convicted of crimes like higher possession or distribution of marijuana.
Executive clemency from the governor is effectively a pardon, and while pardons also cover sentences that are completed, the greatest impact of clemency is to release individuals currently incarcerated for actions that are no longer illegal. The ultimate goal is expungement, which would remove all mentions of criminal convictions from public records, but the legislative processes to change laws and expunge that many sentences are slow and lengthy--leaving many people still incarcerated as they wait for the status of their conviction to change. The coalition is asking the governor to pardon these individuals, so they effectively don't have to wait behind bars for the justice system to catch up with the law.
Only the governor can extend clemency for state crimes, but New Jersey has an application process in place to request them. If you are currently serving time for a now-irrelevant cannabis charge, you may be eligible to request clemency. Likewise, if you have had a cannabis-related criminal record that has yet to be expunged, you may petition the courts directly for an expungement. An experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorney offers you the best chance of success when seeking clemency or expungement for cannabis crimes. Call attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm today at (888) 535-3686 today to discuss your case and your options.