Opinion: Voiceless For Decades in Prison. Today, Their Voice Finally Matters.

The Institute's President & CEO, Ryan P. Haygood writes

It was in 1844 that New Jersey first decided people with criminal convictions should lose the vote – the same year it restricted the vote to white men only in its Constitution.

On its face, the relationship between denying the vote to people with criminal convictions and Black history might not be evident. But the connection is clear.

Last year, more than 102,000 people in New Jersey were denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction. Almost half were Black, though Black people comprise just 15% of New Jersey’s population.

This racial disparity is by design. It is a direct result of the racial discrimination in New Jersey’s criminal justice system, which has the worst racial disparities in America. A Black adult is 12 times more likely to be in prison than a white adult — the highest disparity in the nation, even though Black and white people commit most offenses at the same rate. By connecting voting to its broken criminal justice system, New Jersey literally imports this racism into its democracy.

To finally turn the page on 1844, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, our partners across the Garden State, and people who are denied the right to vote launched the 1844 No More campaign.

We knew that, on the national level, our democracy was being dealt a new blow each day. But we also knew that we didn’t need to wait for democracy to trickle down to us in order to build it right here from the ground up in New Jersey.

So we engaged and partnered with community voices across New Jersey. We conducted research and writing, demonstrated in our latest voting rights report. We organized. We advocated. We rallied. And we traveled back and forth to Trenton and beyond to let elected officials know that it was time to end this shameful part of New Jersey’s past and present.

Our collective goal is to build the most inclusive democracy in America. One that can serve as a national model for other states to follow.

And our collective advocacy is working.

Last year, in response to the 1844 No More campaign, the New Jersey legislature passed a historic bill to restore the vote to people on probation and parole. And with that, when the law goes into effect on March 17 and people on probation and parole can start registering to vote, we will be 83,000 times closer -- the number of people impacted by the law -- to being 1844 No More. That number is nearly as large as the population of New Jersey’s capital city of Trenton.

When legislators took those final votes, our partner Antonne Henshaw was able to press the button to vote in support on behalf of Senator Cunningham, the prime sponsor of the Senate bill.

Because Antonne, who spent over 30 years in prison, was swept up in the criminal justice system very young, he has never had the right to vote. A prison guard once told him that “we can do whatever we want, ya’ll can’t vote, you don’t matter.” Today, March 17, Antonne’s voice finally matters.

Another one of the 83,000 people is the Institute’s own Ron Pierce – a husband, college graduate, and veteran. Ron grew up around a kitchen table conversation of civic engagement over coffee and donuts. When he was convicted of a crime, he lost the right to vote for over 30 years – denied an essential part of his being. Ron, who says voting has “value to the soul,” was also able to press the vote button to pass the law, for Assemblyman Jamel Holley and Senator Nellie Pou.

These stories inspire us because they remind us that policies and laws are not just words written on paper.

Policies affect and empower people.

And people make history.

When New Jersey came closer to being 1844 No More last year, it added 83,000 pages to the story of Black history in New Jersey – but also to New Jersey’s history, and present.

The next chapter of the 1844 No More story will be written when we restore the vote for people in prison.

And there’s no doubt that will happen because the story of progress will keep getting written as we continue to lift our collective voices to build an inclusive democracy from the ground up, to build a New Jersey that is 1844 no more.

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