Patch.com's Eric Kiefer Reports
ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — In 1844, New Jersey passed a law that stripped residents of their right to vote after a criminal conviction. But on Wednesday – 175 years later – that right was restored to thunderous applause from civil rights advocates, former prisoners and their supporters.
During a ceremony in Essex County, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation to restore voting rights to New Jersey residents on probation or parole. The new law is expected to affect more than 80,000 people. It will take effect in 90 days. (Read the full bill)
The voting rights bill was sponsored by Assembly members Shavonda Sumter, Cleopatra Tucker, Jamel Holley and Britnee Timberlake, and Sens. Ronald Rice and Sandra Cunningham.
New Jersey joins more than a dozen other states that have acted to restore voting rights to people on probation or parole.
For Ron Pierce, who hasn't been able to legally enter a voting booth in more than 30 years, the law represents a new hope for the future — a "holiday," as he put it.
"As I'm just beginning to process that I'll be able to vote next year, I am also focused on others I have come to know in the same boat," said Pierce, a member of the Essex County-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ).
"I can't wait to talk to my friend Ibrahim, incarcerated when he was 15, when he comes out of the voting booth for the first time," Pierce said. "I'm thinking about Antonne — who still remembers the shame when he was asked by some kids if he had voted — being able to finally say 'Yes!' And I am definitely thinking about my father, who instilled in me from a very young age the sacred nature of the vote — of having a voice in who represents me, my family and my community. He understood, like I do, that voting has value to the soul."
Pierce added that he and other advocates will keep up the fight, as the law doesn't cover about 19,000 people still in prison.
Prior to Wednesday's bill signing, NJGOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt criticized the pair of bills and four others, calling the week of voting a "criminal Christmas."
"As Democrat politicians shower rule-breakers with privileges and sympathy, the millions of hardworking New Jersey families who do it by the book are once again left asking: Who is looking out for them?" Steinhardt said.
Other Garden State Republicans have blasted the idea of letting people on parole and probation vote, including Assembly members Jon Bramnick of District 21 (Morris, Somerset, Union counties), Hal Wirths of District 24 (Morris, Sussex and Warren), Jay Webber of District 26 (Essex, Morris and Passaic) and Betty Lou DeCroce of District 26 (Essex, Morris and Passaic).
But according to NJISJ President and CEO Ryan Haygood, the signing of A-5823 represents a monumental victory for the Garden State.
"On this historic day, New Jersey has lifted my colleague Ron Pierce — a veteran, husband and college graduate — and 83,000 ghosts of democracy out of the shadows so that they can finally be seen, heard and represented," Haygood said.
"Some rights are too important to lose, and voting is one of them," agreed ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. "Today, we have shown that New Jersey stands for the ideals of justice, democracy and having a voice."
REVAMPING EXPUNGEMENT IN NJ
On Wednesday, Murphy also signed S-4154 into law, which creates a petition process for "clean slate" expungement for residents who have not committed an offense in 10 years and who have not been convicted of "the most serious crimes."
The new law also gives protections to people with low-level marijuana convictions, which will be sealed upon the disposition of a case.
According to Lawrence Hamm, chair of the Newark-based People's Organization for Progress, criminal records can keep people from finding jobs, housing and other crucial opportunities they need to succeed.
According to a statement from Murphy's office:
"S-4154 creates a petition process for 'clean slate' expungement for residents who have not committed an offense in 10 years and who have not been convicted of the most serious crimes. The bill also requires the state to implement an automated clean slate expungement system, which will be developed by a task force charged with studying the technological, fiscal, and practical issues and challenges associated with such a system. Further, the bill requires that low-level marijuana convictions be sealed upon the disposition of a case, preventing those convictions from being used against those individuals in the future. It also makes numerous other changes to existing expungement procedures, including the creation of an e-filing system that would eliminate filing fees to petition for an expungement."
The legislation was sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, Sens. Sandra Cunningham and M. Teresa Ruiz, and Assembly members Jamel Holley, Annette Quijano, Angela McKnight, Benjie Wimberly and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson.
"Removing the stigma of past convictions will allow them to get jobs so they can support themselves and their families as productive members of society," Sweeney said. "Everyone deserves a second chance … this is a way of actually giving people that opportunity."
"The collateral consequences that come with a criminal conviction have been devastating communities of color, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and fracturing families for much too long," said Ruiz, who represents the state's 29th District (Belleville and Newark).
"Whenever there is a conversation about the racial disparities among our state's incarceration rates, we cannot forget that those convictions follow people for the rest of their lives," Ruiz said. "Expungement can begin to address the inequalities that exist in our criminal justice system. There is more work that needs to be done, but this legislation is a significant step in the right direction."
"Our administration is deeply committed to transforming our criminal justice system, and today we are taking a historic step to give residents impacted by that system a second chance," Murphy said Wednesday about the pair of criminal justice bills.
"I am proud to sign one of the most progressive expungement laws in the nation, which will allow more New Jerseyans the opportunity to fully engage in our society," the governor said. "I am also proud to enact legislation that will restore voting rights to over 80,000 residents on probation or parole, allowing them to fully participate in our democracy."
The pair of new laws also received praise from New Jersey Department of Corrections Acting Commissioner Marcus Hicks.
"The Department of Corrections is committed to providing resources that can assist with ensuring a positive trajectory for those exiting our system," Hicks said. "As such, we stand with our partners in criminal justice reform and legislators on sound policies that remove barriers to successful reentry."
Read the full article here