The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the denial of the right to vote to people “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But New Jersey’s law that denies the right to vote to people with criminal convictions undermines the Fifteenth Amendment’s prohibition on explicit racial discrimination by linking the right to vote to a racially discriminatory criminal justice system.
The racially discriminatory impact is particularly acute in New Jersey. New Jersey leads the nation in the racial disparity in Black/white incarceration rates for both adults and youth.[xxiii]
With respect to adults, New Jersey has a Black/white incarceration ratio of 12:1.[xxiv] In other words, a Black adult is 12 times more likely than a white adult to be incarcerated in New Jersey. This is more than double the national ratio of 5:1.[xxv] A significant proportion of these disparities cannot be explained by differing rates of offending.[xxvi]
New Jersey also leads the nation in racial disparities in youth incarceration, where the disparities are even more staggering: a Black youth is 30 times more likely to be detained or committed to a youth facility than their white counterpart.[xxvii] These disparities persist even though Black and white youth commit most offenses at about the same rate.[xxviii]
These disparities are in significant part a reflection of racially discriminatory policy decisions at every stage of the criminal justice system.[xxix]
As one federal appeals court declared:
“Before one who commits a criminal act becomes a felon...numerous other decisions must be made by State actors. Police departments decide where to spend resources, officers decide which individuals to search and arrest, prosecutors decide which individuals to charge (including whether to charge a felony or a misdemeanor), detain, and prosecute. If those decision points are infected with racial bias, resulting in some people becoming felons not just because they have committed a crime, but because of their race, then that felon status cannot…disqualify felons from voting."[xxx]
The exclusion of a sizeable portion of the Black population from New Jersey’s electorate is a direct result of its decision to link voting rights with the criminal justice system.[xxxi]