NJ One Step From Giving Voting Rights to Those on Parole or Probation, But Not in Prison

NorthJersey.com's Ashley Balcerzak Reports

New Jersey is one legislative step away from letting thousands more people on parole or probation vote, after the Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Phil Murphy's desk Monday. However, lawmakers stopped short of legislation that would give voting rights to currently incarcerated people, which only two states allow.

The Senate voted 21-17 to pass a measure that would allow people convicted of an indictable offense, or felony, currently on parole or probation to vote, affecting more than 73,000 disenfranchised New Jerseyans, according to a report by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. New Jersey's 1844 state Constitution let the Legislature deny the vote to people with criminal convictions until they finished their entire sentences, which includes parole and probation. The Assembly passed the bill 48-24 in November.

“We live in a democratic society where the right to vote is our most sacred right," said Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex. "If we want people to return and be productive members of society, we must return to them this fundamental right.”

Formerly incarcerated New Jerseyans testified in front of legislative committees about why it's important that their votes are restored. Advocates spoke about how connection to a community through voting helps reduce recidivism and that taking away a person's vote is not a deterrent for crime. 

“I pay taxes and I have no say of where those tax dollars go to, what decisions are made or who is able to make them,” said Eric Pereira, 29, who testified in front of a Senate committee in December.

Pereira is on parole after pleading guilty to vehicular manslaughter. He now works at Rutgers University at NJ STEP, or New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons, which helps people in prison attend college courses or assist people as they transition out of prison. “The ability to vote ... make[s] people and the culture feel like we have a say in our community and our state and our country on what goes on, and that’s how people can feel connected,” he said.

Julius Morris, 73, said at a December Senate hearing that although he has been out of prison for 17 years, he has not been able to vote "a day in his life" because he is still on parole. He served 25 years in prison for murder, according to Department of Corrections records. 

"I have been very conscious of politics since about 15," Morris said. "I just want to have some input and say so in the process. We’re trying to make the state a better institution. I believe that the right to vote would ensure that, so that we could help put our good ideas and our suffering into the process."

In total, more than 94,000 people in New Jersey cannot vote, when the 21,300 incarcerated individuals are included, according to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice analysis of data from the Sentencing Project. And more than half of those without the right to vote, or 47,400, are black. 

Murphy has publicly supported extending voting rights to those on parole or probation, but has not gone so far as to back giving felons in prison the right to vote. 

“Governor Murphy believes that increasing access to the ballot so that more people can exercise their right to vote is critical for our state and democracy as a whole," said Alyana Alfaro Post, Murphy's press secretary.

If he signs the bill, New Jersey will join 16 states and Washington, D.C., in restoring voting rights as soon as a person is released from prison, according to a count by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute at New York University.

"People on parole or probation or incarcerated are still citizens of this great country," said sponsor Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson. "We want people to come out of prison better than they were when they went in, and people having the right to vote will help to give them dignity and understand what they've neglected through the years."

The Garden State is currently one of 21 states where felons cannot vote in prison or while on parole or probation, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In some states, the formerly incarcerated have to pay fines or fees before they can vote again.  

'Drastic racial disparities'

While 73,000 more New Jerseyans may soon gain back their access to the ballot box, 21,000 people will still have their voting rights withheld as they serve time in prison.

"Failing to fully restore the right to vote for everyone in our criminal justice system, which is plagued by drastic racial disparities, disproportionately excludes people of color from having their voices heard," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow all incarcerated people to vote while in prison, and New Jersey advocates would like to see the state join the list. 

"I know we’d like to get it all passed at once, but we’re also realistic," said Cunningham, who also sponsored a bill to give people in prison the right to vote. "It's not an easy way of doing it, and unfortunately not everyone understands it yet."

Republican lawmakers have opposed even the limited bill, which applies only to people on parole and probation. 

“By removing one of the important penalties associated with criminal convictions, Democrats would eliminate a significant deterrent to committing crime that could negatively impact public safety,” Sen. Jim Holzapfel, R-Ocean, a former Ocean County prosecutor, said in a November statement. “People who have shown criminal disregard for our laws should not have a role in electing the people who write them.”

During a November Assembly hearing, all 12 people that testified urged lawmakers to go further and restore voting rights to felons, and many read letters from people currently in prison. 

Imani Oakley, the legislative director of Working Families New Jersey, read a letter from Latonia Bellamy. Bellamy, 29, wrote about her childhood trauma, incarceration, and how she earned an associate's degree and is more involved in religious groups.

"My voice, and the voice of all other incarcerated people, is being choked by this unjust system," Bellamy wrote. "I want to be able to vote so my voice can be heard. I have spent nine years in a system which has suppressed the voices of those of us who are in it." 

Liz Glynn of New Jersey Citizen Action read a letter from Sean Farrell, 43, who wrote that he has been incarcerated since he was 14, after pleading guilty to murder. He is serving a life sentence. 

"No one told me what I was signing away on the dotted line, and no one told me I would forever be considered not worthy of full citizenship," Farrell wrote. "My immature brain and limited education were not factors considered relevant in my signing a plea agreement. My voice has value."  

The letters were collected by Ron Pierce, a fellow at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the organization that launched the voting rights issue into the Trenton spotlight. 

Pierce said his father instilled in him the importance of the vote, and would have people over for coffee and doughnuts after they returned from the polls. In a political science class he took in prison, he saw how skeptical prisoners, who said their voices didn't count, slowly changed their minds as they learned more about civil rights, voting rights and gerrymandering. 

So when he was released from prison, he joined the Institute for Social Justice and collected questionnaires and letters from people still in prison for a report about the issues they faced and their desire to vote. 

If Murphy signs the bill, Pierce will be able to vote for the first time in more than 30 years. 

"It’s gonna be overwhelming, because it’s going to mean that I’m going to be able to follow through with something my father was majorly adamant about us doing," Pierce said. "Even though he passed before I became free, I will be able to follow up on things he taught me."

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