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Legislation Introduced to Restore Voting Rights to People with Convictions

To learn more about the #1844NoMore campaign please click here.

On February 26 at 11:00 AM, Senator Ronald L. Rice, Senator Sandra Cunningham, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice hosted a press conference to announce the introduction of legislation to end New Jersey’s practice of denying the right to vote to people with criminal convictions.

“Today is a historic day. Today is the anniversary of Congress’ approval of the 15th Amendment, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting,” said Senator Rice, primary sponsor of the Senate bill. “But almost 150 years after its adoption a disproportionate number of Black New Jerseyans are still denied the right to vote. Our bill seeks to realize the promise of the 15th Amendment by severing the link between the fundamental right to vote and involvement in the criminal justice system.”

Joining Senator Rice, Senator Cunningham, Assemblywoman Sumter, and the Institute in their call for the restoration of voting rights for people with convictions are almost eighty organizations, including the ACLU of New Jersey, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, the African American Chamber of Commerce, the New Jersey Association on Correction, and the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.  For a list of organizations that support the restoration of voting rights for people on parole, on probation, and in prison, please click here.

Senator Cunningham, primary sponsor of the Senate bill, and Assemblywoman Sumter, primary sponsor of the companion bill in the Assembly, urged New Jersey leaders to be bold.

“I call on Governor Murphy and my colleagues to be bold,” said Senator Cunningham. “If we are serious about criminal justice reform and access to democracy, New Jersey must guarantee the fundamental right to vote to all its citizens, whether in prison or living in the community while on parole or probation.”

“New Jersey can lead the nation as a model of racial justice and inclusive democracy with the enactment of this bill," said Sumter, Assembly Majority Conference Leader. "The privilege to participate in the election process is a constitutional right afforded every American regardless of background, race, or status.  Every person of voting age should have the ability to cast their ballot without interference and without judgement of their personal history. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that we achieve the highest democratic ideal.”

New Jersey enacted its first broad ban on voting by people with criminal convictions in 1844, the same year it adopted a state Constitution that restricted voting to white men and a time when slavery was still legal in New Jersey, according to the Institute’s report, We Are 1844 No More: Let Us Vote.

“New Jersey’s ban on voting for people in prison, on parole, or on probation remains a moral stain on our state,” said Ryan Haygood, Institute President and CEO. “We are proud to stand here today to demand an end to this anti-democratic practice and declare that we are 1844 no more.”

Mayor Ras Baraka (Newark), Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla (Hoboken), Mayor Steve Fulop (Jersey City), Mayor Adrian Mapp (Plainfield), and Mayor Michael Venezia (Bloomfield), have also declared their support for ending the state’s ban on voting for people with convictions.

“As the mayor of Hoboken and as a civil rights attorney, I am proud to condemn our state’s practice of denying the right to vote to people with convictions,” said Mayor Bhalla. “The practice is undemocratic and it is unjust. It is time for New Jersey to restore the fundamental right to vote to those on parole, on probation, and in prison.”

Just five counties—Essex, Camden, Hudson, Monmouth, and Ocean—are home to almost half of those removed from the rolls. Those same five counties contain 46 percent of the state’s Black population.

“This is a racial justice issue,” said Mayor Baraka. “By linking the right to vote to an institution infected with racism, we are systematically disfranchising Black voters. And it’s having a disproportionate impact on our urban areas. This is as shameful a practice as poll taxes or literacy tests.”

Although Black people comprise just 15 percent of New Jersey's overall population, they represent, incredibly, about half of those who have lost their voting rights as a result of a criminal conviction, according to the Institute’s report, We Are 1844 No More: Let Us Vote.

“Taking away the right to vote from anyone, for any reason, undermines the very notion of democracy,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “As the world’s largest jailer, with a prison system that has racial inequality as a hallmark, our government lacks moral authority to strip anyone of their electoral power. Everyone deserves to have a say in a democracy. A criminal conviction does not erase our humanity, and it should not invalidate our voice.”

Overall, 5.28 percent of New Jersey’s Black voting age population was denied the right to vote in the 2016 Presidential election, a rate over twice that of many of our neighbors in the Northeast.

“Denying people the right to vote because of a criminal conviction is not only anti-democratic but it is immoral. The right to vote is a fundamental right,” added Rev. Charles Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury. “Due, in part, to systemic racism in the criminal justice system, this fundamental right is being denied to a disproportionate number of Black New Jerseyans.”

New Jersey currently denies the right to vote to more than 94,000 people with criminal convictions—more than the total population of Trenton, the state’s capital, according to theInstitute’s report

“As a formerly incarcerated person who now leads two successful businesses and works to help people returning from prison develop job and leadership skills, I can tell you that being part of the community and having a voice in the decisions that shape that community is essential to successful rehabilitation and reentry,” said Tracey Syphax, an entrepreneur, author, motivational speaker, and a White House “Champion of Change” honoree.

Institute Legal Intern and Rutgers University student Ronald Pierce is denied the right to vote because he is currently on parole.

“This law strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a human being,” said Pierce. “What is a democracy if you don’t have the right to vote? To strip an individual of their fundamental right to vote is to deny that individual their personhood. To vote has value to the soul.”

Almost eighty organizations have signed on in support of restoring voting rights to people on parole, on probation, and in prison, including direct service organizations, student groups, the business community, the re-entry and corrections field, labor, racial justice groups, women’s organizations, and many others.

“The broad support that we’ve seen from the community—almost eighty organizations in support—is a testament to how deeply New Jersey residents value the fundamental right to vote,” said Institute Associate Counsel Scott Novakowski, primary author of the Institute’s report, We Are 1844 No More: Let Us Vote. “Just as we do not deny a person the fundamental right to medical care or the right to practice their religion on account of a felony conviction, we should not deny people their fundamental democratic voice. We can, and must, do better.”

“This is a matter of democracy,” said Jesse Burns, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “By restoring the right to vote to people with convictions, this bill will help create a more inclusive democracy in New Jersey.”

National organizations, including Demos, the ACLU, and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, have also endorsed the campaign to restore voting rights to people with convictions in New Jersey.

“When more citizens are able to participate in our democracy, we strengthen our core values of justice, fairness, and inclusivity,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We applaud Senators Rice and Cunningham, and Assemblywoman Sumter, for introducing this important legislation. Criminal disfranchisement laws are rooted in the post-Civil War era, were used to prevent freed slaves from voting, and have disproportionate impact on African Americans. We urge swift passage of this legislation to ensure that all people are able to participate fully in their democracy.”

Note to reporters: When referring to people who are denied the right to vote we politely ask that you use the following phrases: people with convictions, people on parole, people on probation, people in prison, or people who are incarcerated. We kindly ask you to avoid dehumanizing language like convicts, criminals, or felons.

JOIN US to say: We Are 1844 No More

The Institute invites you  to join us on Monday, February 26 at a press conference to introduce historic legislation that will restore voting rights to nearly 100,000 people on probation, parole, and in prison. To learn more about New Jersey's disfranchisement bill, please read the Institute's report, We Are 1844 No More: Let Us Vote

Joining us will be the authors of the legislation, Senator Ronald Rice, Senator Sandra Cunningham, and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter. Our colleagues from the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, ACLU of New Jersey, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey will also join us, along with people in New Jersey who have been denied the right to vote, community leaders, Hoboken Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla and Reverend Charles Boyer, among others.

The press conference will be held on Monday, February 26 -- the anniversary of Congress's approval of the 15th Amendment -- at 11:00 AM at the State House, located at 125 W. State Street in Trenton, NJ, in Room 103. Please RSVP to Communications Director Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg at ewgreenberg@njisj.org as space is limited.

New Jersey first denied the right to vote to people with criminal convictions in 1844, the same year it adopted a constitution that restricted voting to white men.

Today, about half of those denied access to this fundamental right are Black, even though Black people make up just 15 percent of New Jersey's overall population. Today, more Black  people in New Jersey are denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction than were barred from voting before racial discrimination in voting was prohibited by the 15th Amendment in 1870.

New Jersey denies the right to vote to more people than the total population of New Jersey's capital city, Trenton. Our state denies the right to vote to more people than live in Camden, Hoboken, Montclair, and each of more than 150 other municipalities in New Jersey.

As my colleague Scott Novakowski recently wrote, we must sever the antidemocratic link between the right to vote and the criminal justice system.

Please stand with us on February 26 as we raise our collective voices to erase this moral stain on our democracy.

We are 1844 no more. Let us vote!

101.5: Art by NJ youth who’ve been behind bars — A look into their minds

New Jersey 101.5 reports:

The event was part of the Institute's 150 Years is Enough campaign, which aims to transform the juvenile justice system by closing youth prisons and creating a community-based system of care.

"Our juvenile justice system is scarred by extreme racial disparities and recidivism," state Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, said in a statement. "This exhibition shares the artwork of those who have been incarcerated, enabling all of us to see their talents, stories, and limitless possibilities."

Northjersey.com: Paterson Black History Month celebration honors community organizations

Northjersey.com reports:

The seventh annual Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Black History Month Celebration, hosted by Sen. Bob Menendez, was packed with local residents and visitors from other cities, including Jersey City and Irvington...

This year's honorees were the African American Chamber of Commerce, based in Trenton, for its work since 2007 with more than 66,000 African-American business owners in New Jersey, including entrepreneurship programs and technical assistance; the Newark-based African American Heritage Parade and Festival Organization, for its celebration of African-American history, including organizing the annual African American Heritage Statewide Parade and Festival in Newark; and the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice, also in Newark, for its efforts in New Jersey's urban communities on such matters as economic mobility, criminal justice reform and civic engagement.

The American Prospect: Movement in the Fight for Voting Rights Restoration

The American Prospect reports:

New Jersey is another state that has a real chance to make significant change this year. With a new Democratic governor who campaigned on criminal justice reform, Democratic majorities in both houses, and legislation already filed by two veteran senators, the possibilities for success are real. A recent report issued by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) called "We Are Not 1844" [sic] makes note of the year felony disenfranchisement was passed and the 94,000 people currently disenfranchised... 

According to Scott Novakowski of the NJISJ, "This is a perfect time to take a look at a policy with such discriminatory impact and no public safety value. We can make New Jersey a model of what an inclusive democracy can look like."

 

Correctional News: New Jersey Enacts Law to Examine Racial Disparity in Sentencing

Correctional News reports:

Theoretically, with proper data analysis, policymakers can make more informed decisions regarding public safety issues without “aggravating existing racial disparities,” according to a statement issued by the Sentencing Project, an initiative that works for a fair and effective U.S. justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy. The organization, which worked with several state partners in pushing the legislation (including Rev. Charles Boyer who leads a coalition called Salvation and Social Justice, Drug Policy Alliance – NJ; ditto the ACLU of New Jersey) also advocates for alternatives to incarceration and seeks to address unjust racial disparities and practices. To that end, in 2016, a study by The Sentencing Project found that New Jersey has the nation’s highest rate of black/white disparity in incarceration.

“New Jersey has the worst black/white youth incarceration disparity rate in the country. Even though black and white kids commit most offenses at similar rates, a black child is, incredibly, 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white child. As a result, just 13 white children are incarcerated in New Jersey as of January of this year,” said Ryan P. Haygood, President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (the Institute) in a statement issued on its website in September 2017.

“We know that all kids can be saved. These striking racial disparities reflect racially discriminatory policy decisions that determine which kids get prison and which kids do not in New Jersey. We cannot support this shameful system of youth incarceration. It is, at its core, racialized, ineffective and destructive to youth and their families. It is a moral stain on our state,” Haygood’s statement continued.

In a prior report published by the Institute in December 2016, entitled “Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I A Child,” it was found that black youth comprise nearly 75 percent of those committed to both secure and non-secure state juvenile facilities.

Star Ledger: Sure, Amazon would be great, but there are other signs Newark's on the rise

The Star Ledger reports

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show there were about 13,700 firms operating in Newark in 2002. According to the lastest available numbers from, 2012, there were 22,800 firms operating.

Yet Newarkers hold only 18 percent of all jobs in the city, according to a report from New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. In Baltimore, residents hold 33 percent of jobs; in Detroit, that number is 25 percent, the 2017 report said. 

Baraka is pushing a local-hiring initiative to make sure residents reap the benefits when major companies come to Newark. And with more eyes on Newark, that commitment -- should Amazon land in the city -- will be put to the test. 

"The mayor will personally hold their feet to the fire," Aisha Glover, CEO of the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation, said Thursday.

Mic: It's time to talk about voting rights for people with convictions

Check out Mic's video report on the Institute's work to restore voting rights to people with convictions featuring Associate Counsel Scott Novakowski and Intern Ron Pierce.