Heading into the new year, there are several laws that will be taking effect in New Jersey.
Below is a recap of some of the most noteworthy bills signed by Gov. Phil Murphy over the past year.
In November 2020, voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum question regarding the legalization of marijuana for recreational use by adults. Since then, the state legislature has passed bills that officially legalizes marijuana for personal use, decriminalizes it and removes the substance from the Schedule I drug list.
While the constitutional amendment goes into effect Jan. 1, creating a framework for legalization has been delayed. A deal has reportedly been reached on a key change wanted by Gov. Murphy, amending the fines and penalties for marijuana possession for people under the age of 21.
Nixing the Term ‘Freeholder’
As of Jan. 1, the title of “chosen freeholder” changed to “county commissioner” and all “boards of chosen freeholders” are now known as “boards of county commissioners.” The measure, signed by Murphy in August, requires counties to update their letterheads, stationary and other paper documents, along with websites, to reflect the change by Jan. 1, 2021.
Under the law, signage doesn’t need to be changed within the timeframe if it would require an additional expense and allows counties to replace them “in the ordinary course of business.”
New Jersey was the only state in the U.S. to call its top elected county officials “freeholders,” a centuries-old title that lawmakers said was “born from racism” and was “long overdue” for a change.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said, “People know the term is offensive and refers to a time when only white male landowners could hold public office. As a former freeholder, I was fully aware that this title was not inclusive of African American woman such as myself. History is constantly evolving, and our terminology needs to keep up with it to be more reflective of where we are as a society.”
Long-Term Care Staffing Changes
On Feb. 1, a law that sets minimum ratio for nurses and aides at nursing homes and long-term care facilities will go into effect.
The measure is one of several recommendations made in the Manatt Health report, a state-commissioned review that found nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the Garden State were unprepared to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The law requires one certified nursing assistant per eight patients during a day shift, one direct care staff member for every 10 residents during an evening shift and one direct care staffer for every 14 patients during an overnight shift.
Additionally, the legislation will establish a special task force to develop strategies for recruiting new direct care staff and evaluate training opportunities, wages and educational incentives.
Murphy said, “Sadly, too many nursing homes are run by companies more interested in making money than protecting patients.” The “long-sought reforms,” he said, “will help bring accountability to the industry and protect residents, staff and family members with a loved one living in a long-term care facility.”
Health Insurance Tax
As of Jan. 1, health insurance companies will pay a 2.5% tax on premiums, which is part of the state’s efforts to increase affordability and expand access to coverage.
Under the law, the proceeds of the tax—estimated to be around $200 million—will be used to help subsidize the cost of health insurance for people earning less than four times the federal poverty level. Individuals earning up to $51,040 and a family of four earning up to $104,800 qualify for the subsidy program.
An estimated $77 million will be dedicated to the reinsurance program to address high-cost claims and lower premium costs in the individual healthcare marketplace.
Murphy said the measure’s passage “could not have come at a more critical juncture and will directly benefit our uninsured and underinsured populations at a time when many have lost health coverage as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Law Enforcement Recruitment & Training
Starting Feb. 1, corrections officers must receive 20 hours of in-service training annually, with four of those hours focused on the prevention of sexual misconduct, manipulation and non-fraternization.
The is one of three reforms signed by Murphy aimed at preventing sexual abuse of inmates by corrections officers at New Jersey’s only women’s prison.
On the same day, a requirement that every law enforcement agency in the state to create minority hiring programs goes into effect.
Under the law, agencies must develop a minority recruitment and selection program to help ensure law enforcement reflects New Jersey’s diverse population and must include goals for recruiting and hiring women and minorities and deadlines for meeting those objectives.
Beginning March 1, law enforcement agencies will be required to provide cultural diversity and implicit bias training every five years for officers. The measure orders the Department of Law and Public Safety to add implicit bias training to its cultural diversity training curriculum for academy recruits.
Murphy said, “To build upon on our progress to reshape policing, we must address the systemic and implicit biases that too often negatively impact relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Arrest Data Collection, Analyzation
Starting Dec. 1, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office will be required to collect, record and analyze criminal justice data, including demographic statistics, and make those reports available to the public.
State Sen. Tom Kean (R-21), the bill’s primary sponsor, said, “Justice is the cornerstone of American democracy and all New Jersey residents deserve equal protection under the law.”
“This will help elected officials and the public better evaluate how the long is being applied and enforced in New Jersey,” he said. “It is imperative that we identify underlying issues within the system and find solutions as part of a concerted effort to assure that justice in New Jersey is blind and fair.”
As part of a series of prison-related reforms, Murphy signed into effect a bill establishing a compassionate release program for inmates who are suffering from a terminal medical condition or permanent physical disability.
The law, sponsored in the Assembly by Annette Chaparro (D-33), Gordon Johnson (D-37), and Pedro Mejia (D-32), requires the state to report annually on cost savings stemming from compassionate release and mandatory minimum reforms since legislators believe the reforms are “likely to result in shorter prison terms for certain low-risk offenders.”
Any savings must go to a newly-created fund that will be used to support recidivism reduction programs and other services to help former inmates successfully reenter society following release.
“Mass incarceration has shattered the lives of thousands of people across our state. Alarming racial disparities and mandatory minimums have exacerbated the problem,” said the Assembly sponsors of the bill. “Between high rates of recidivism and mandatory minimum sentences keeping individuals incarcerated, the State has also shouldered a large economic burden. The cost to keep a person behind bars is estimated to be $50,000 per year.”
As of Feb. 1, the state will create an administrative parole that will allow certain inmates convicted of non-violent offenses to be released on parole following a review by a hearing officer and certification by a member of the state’s Parole Board.
The law requires the state Department of Corrections to create reentry plans to help each inmate ease back into life after release.
Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants
New Jersey will join 13 other states in allowing residents to obtain driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status.
In December 2019, Murphy signed a new law expanding access to driver’s licenses to those without legal immigration status, as well as residents who may not have documentation. Nearly a half million residents are expected to be able to benefit once the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (NJMVC) launched the new offering.
While the new law was set to take effect Jan. 1, the NJMVC announced recently the rollout would be delayed while it works to reduce its backlog of work caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.