Sen. Cunningham discusses expungement and student debt bills

Gov. Chris Christie’s made good on his pledge to give some former inmates a better chance at getting work by getting their criminal records expunged. It’s part of a trio of bills that would clear more records faster and prohibit employers from discriminating against those whose records have been scrubbed. The bill’s the result of meetings with State Sen. Sandra Cunningham. She joins Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.

Aron: Senator, what are you trying to accomplish with these bills on expungement?

Cunningham: We’re trying to make it easier for people who made mistakes in their lives to come out of incarceration if they have been incarcerated, find jobs and become productive citizens.

Aron: Right now is it a difficult process to get expunged?

Cunningham: Yes it is. Well, yes. Right now you can only expunge three offenses, we are moving it to four offenses. One offense rather now, we are moving it to four. But, it’s difficult for people. It can be an expensive process. But mostly it’s people who spent a lot of their years being unproductive, and most people coming out of incarceration, I’d like to say, really want make a change in their lives.

Aron: The governor put out a press release saying that he developed these bills in concert with you, that’s kind of unusual. Did you work together on this?

Cunningham: Yes we did, yes we did. I also worked with many stakeholders to put some information together. I’ve sat down with the governor and we talked about it and he listened to what I had to say in what I was revealing to him from the information I’d obtain from my stakeholders. And he listened, and he said what he could do and what he could not do and why, so it was a good relationship.

Aron: You and he worked together on the Ban the Box legislation a few years ago, also making it easier for someone with a criminal past to get a job by not having to put a check mark in the particular box until later in the employment process. Is this an expansion of that?

Cunningham: Well, what some of this new legislation will do is strengthen Ban the Box. We found out since Ban the Box came into view, that now we have employers who are holding against people if they have their records expunged. So, it’s a vicious circle that we’re dealing with here. This will strengthen Ban the Box and also hopefully open the doors for people the way its supposed to do.

Aron: Expungement is supposed to put it away for good. You’re saying that an employer can discriminate on the basis of an expunged record?

Cunningham: That’s what we’re hearing, yes, that people are not being called in because they know that they have an expungement. So, it’s an ongoing process.

Aron: You’re the chair of the Higher Education Committee in the Senate, you have been working on a student loan debt package of bill. What are you hoping to do there?

Cunningham: We have found that the higher education school loan authority there’s been some issues. A lot of this came to light in a public hearing that Senator Bob Gordon and myself had. We found that people were having problems trying to figure out how to repay their loans. Loans were given to people in some cases who clearly could not afford to pay back the money at any time.

Aron: The HESAA, the Higher Education Student Assistant Authority, was the subject of an expose in the New York Times after a student died and the agency hounded the mother to pay the debt. Would your bill eliminate that kind of a situation?

Cunningham: Yes, we already did a bill. We’ve actually got a package of about 17 bills and one of those bills included legislation that said if the student passed away then the debt is finished.

Aron: Has that agency been too aggressive in its collection tactics?

Cunningham: I think that they’ve been really aggressive and there are reasons for it. But yes, I think they have been aggressive. And more importantly, I think that the Legislature and the Governor’s Office should be aware of how it’s working and should know what’s going on, so one of the bills is about transparency.

Aron: Alright, well good luck with your legislation on both fronts.

Cunningham: Thank you.

Aron: Sen. Cunningham, thanks very much.

Cunningham: Thank you.