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June 19, 2024

N.J. changes clemency program with intent of streamlining process for certain offenders

Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order on Wednesday to coincide with Juneteenth.

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New Jersey Clemency Thomas P. Costello/USA TODAY NETWORK

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy marked Juneteenth with the creation of a new clemency program focused on providing options for people seeking pardons and commutations of their state convictions.

A new program in New Jersey creates pathways for people convicted of certain crimes to apply for clemency. The state's leaders intend the initiative to help speed up the process of being considered for this leniency or mercy for some nonviolent offenses and for survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking who served sentences for acts of retaliation, for example. 

Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order on Wednesday establishing the program. The move intentionally coincided with Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. Black and Latino people are disproportionately impacted by inequities, and the Murphy administration believes this fits into its goal of achieving greater equity.

Clemency is a term that encompasses various forms of relief granted by the government to people who have committed crimes and are serving prison sentences or are on parole or probation. Even after people finished serving these punishments, clemency can be used to help clean a person's criminal record — which can be a barrier to employment, housing, and professional licenses.

"This new clemency initiative is a cornerstone of our administration's efforts to make New Jersey the state of second chances," Murphy said.

The executive order signed by Murphy provides for two types of clemency. 

People who went to trial for their crimes and were given sentences longer than they would have received by pleading guilty may be eligible for a commutation. This grants early release from prison if a sentence is deemed to be excessive relative to the crime. It does not clear the criminal record that led to the person's imprisonment. 

The program also will offer pardons to some people who already have served their prison terms and have been released. This could include people who committed crimes while they were experiencing domestic violence or sex trafficking. Pardons could also be granted to people who have nonviolent convictions and have remained free from the justice system for a period of five years or 10 years, depending on their ages. 

Other instances potentially covered include people convicted of crimes no longer against the law in New Jersey or ones that previously resulted in harsher penalties than they do under the current state laws.  

The program makes a priority of cases that will likely warrant clemency and helps those applications move through the system more quickly to be considered by the new Clemency Advisory Board. The board will make recommendations to the governor about cases that merit commutations and pardons.

Rapper Meek Mill, a North Philly native who now lives in South Jersey, was with Murphy when he signed the executive order at a church in Newark. Since his own release from prison, Mill has become a social justice advocate, and he is the cofounder and co-chair of REFORM Alliance, an organization that wants to change states probation and parole systems.

"This is an entirely new approach to clemency that is going to cut red tape and restore hope, dignity, and opportunity for people unjustly trapped in the system," reported Mill said at Wednesday's Newark event.

The executive order notes that more than 155,000 people are currently in New Jersey jails and prisons, or otherwise are under supervision through parole and probation.

"Long sentences and harsh punishment don't deliver safety or real accountability to survivors of crime," said Marta Nelson, director of sentencing reform at the Vera Institute of Justice. "A more effective response is to support survivors with the services they need and facilitate repair and change among those who commit harm so that they can safely come home and be contributing members of our communities."

A new state-run clemency website offers resources for attorneys and people representing themselves to learn about how to prepare and submit applications for pardons or commutations. 

Clemency applications will be accepted online and by mail. The governor's office said the advisory board anticipates a high volume of applications at the outset and has not yet established a timeframe that applicants should expect for their cases to be reviewed.