NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) It’s tough enough finding a job in this economy, but for Kerry Sifford, a trained security guard and graphic designer who was arrested years ago on a minor offense, it has been nearly impossible.
Sifford served a week in county jail in 2001 for shooting a man in the leg with a BB gun after the man trespassed on his mother’s property. Sifford did the time, paid the fine, but the criminal record remained, immediately raising a red flag for employers, he said. Now, he is unable to find steady work.

“This economy has made everything harder, especially for people like me,” said Sifford, 49 and a married father of two grown children.

That may be changing for thousands of low-level ex-offenders like Sifford who are looking to clear their records, after the New Jersey Legislature revised its expungement law this year.

The new law gives judges greater discretion to grant applications. It also gives them more discretion to reduce the waiting period for someone’s criminal record to be cleared from 10 years to five years, and adds certain drug convictions to the list of expungeable offenses.

The benefit, defense lawyers and social-service experts say, is that these ex-offenders who aren’t career criminals can have a better chance at finding jobs and moving forward.

The number of offenders who have served their sentences and filed applications statewide has already increased since the revised law took effect in March, and is expected to climb steadily.

Sifford was granted an expungement in June, with help from the City of Newark’s Reentry Legal Services (known as ReLeSe). His conviction for unlawful possession of a weapon and disorderly persons had “followed me around forever.” Now he believes there is hope.

“It’s like a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

But expungement isn’t for everyone, said Gina DeVito, managing attorney for the Newark ReLeSe program. “This is designed for the one-time, nonhabitual offender who is prepared to leave that life behind and begin again,” she said.

Prior to the revisions this year, certain second-, third- and fourth-degree indictable convictions were eligible to be expunged, along with up to two disorderly persons offenses, said John Marshall, a criminal defense attorney whose office handles between 50 and 100 such applications annually. He said many are from low-level drug offenders or people who just can’t shake a minor conviction.

Certain crimes cannot be cleared, including homicide, arson, robbery, kidnapping and rape. The revised law adds several offenses—including human trafficking, charges involving child sexual endangerment and those relating to terrorism—that can’t be expunged.

In the first 10 months of 2010, 7,951 people filed applications for expungement statewide, an increase of about 600 from 2009, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Still, most people don’t know about the changes, according to Karen Sacks, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, whose ReLeSe program handles about 150 such requests annually. The new law “will allow hundreds, if not thousands of deserving individuals to make a fresh start,” she said.

Once someone’s record is expunged, the conviction will no longer appear on a criminal background check, although it could pop up in web searches, and there have been instances where law enforcement databases were not updated to reflect the change.

In Newark, where around 15 percent of residents remain out of work and where scores of ex-offenders return to the city each year, Mayor Cory Booker said the revised law comes at a crucial time.

“Unless we offer actual rehabilitation—jobs, counseling, training—we will not eradicate crime in Newark, and merely continue and expand a destructive cycle of recidivism.”

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