Democracy and Justice Fellow Ron Pierce writes with Ronald L. Rice
Life-long New Jersey resident Daryle Pitts served in Vietnam as a combat marine and participated in 25 long range reconnaissance missions and 19 major operations, including the Tet counter-offensive. He was decorated for valor and gallantry and was honored with the Purple Heart for a gunshot wound received during combat. He is now 70 years old and has PTSD and Parkinson’s disease from exposure to Agent Orange.
It is Daryle Pitts and other veterans whom we acknowledge today for their service to our nation – and for putting their lives on the line to protect our democracy.
But in a twist of fate, it is also people like Daryle Pitts, who is currently languishing in prison for a crime he committed in the midst of a PTSD episode, whom we are banning from participating in that very democracy by denying them the right to vote.
Like Daryle, we also served in the Marines, where we were taught to “never leave a brother behind.” Both of us still continue to dedicate our lives to protecting our democracy -- one as a New Jersey state senator and the other as an advocate for voting rights. And one of us, like Daryle, is denied the vote due to a criminal conviction.
New Jersey denies the vote to over 102,000 people because of criminal convictions. Many, like us, are veterans whose sacrifices we honor today.
That we have persisted in upholding this practice is shameful. It is also hypocritical when we consider the veterans who are denied the right to vote, whose convictions are tied to their time serving this country, and whose service we say we honor.
Difficulty adjusting to civilian life, economic disadvantage, and substance abuse driven by the need to cope with trauma are some of the reasons why veterans get caught up in the criminal justice system. Over half the veterans who interact with the criminal justice system have either mental health problems, such as PTSD, or substance-abuse disorders.
Our recognition of this problem has led to the creation of the Veterans Diversion Program and the Judiciary’s Veterans Assistance Project. However, there is no program to address the injustice of having your right to vote – your voice – denied, after fighting to defend that very right.
We do not have to do this. We can restore the right to vote to all those with criminal convictions, bringing New Jersey to where Maine, Vermont, and many western democracies already are. Pending legislation championed by both of us, S2100/A3456, will do just that. We must pass it this year.
While serving time in prison, Daryle became a paralegal and worked in the Inmate Legal Association, acting as a tutor and mentor to anyone who wanted to further their education while incarcerated. His illnesses limit his activities now, but he could vote and contribute his voice to the democracy he fought – and suffered – to preserve if given the chance.
As he said in a recent report where he was featured, “Because of this prohibition [from voting], I am incapable of having my perspective listened to and this affects my life, the lives of my family, community, and nation.”
As we celebrate Veterans Day and the 334th anniversary of the Marine Corps, remember the veterans that are currently denied a voice in our democracy because of antiquated disenfranchisement laws that serve no criminal justice objective.
As for us, as Marine veterans, we remain dedicated to the principles we learned in training and in our time in service. We recognize all veterans who sacrificed to defend this country’s inalienable rights, including the right to vote, and wish our fellow Marines a Happy Birthday and Semper Fi.
State Sen. Ronald L. Rice represents the 28th Legislative District. He’s also a Marine who served in Veitnam, and a holder of Presidential and Navy Unit Citations. He has a master’s degree from Rutgers School of Criminal Justice.
Ronald W. Pierce is a Democracy & Justice Fellow at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and a Marine Veteran awarded the Cold War Recognition Certificate. He has a degree in Justice Studies from Rutgers School of Criminal Justice.
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