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Op-Ed: Restore Voting Rights to People on Parole and Probation

NJ bans almost 95,000 people from voting because of a criminal conviction. Over three-quarters — about 70,000 — are on parole or probation

Scott Novakowski
Scott Novakowski

On May 1, I witnessed democracy in action. My organization, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference hosted “A Conversation About Social Justice with New Jersey’s Gubernatorial Candidates.” At this forum, before 600 community members, nine gubernatorial candidates from three political parties convened on one stage in Newark to share their plans to address today’s most pressing social justice issues.

For over two hours, the candidates passionately discussed their positions on youth justice, economic inequality, immigration, and voting rights.

As I listened to the conversation, I was struck by the painful reality that a significant number of people, many of whom are deeply impacted by these issues, will remain without a voice this election season because of New Jersey’s anti-democratic law that denies the right to vote to people serving a sentence for a criminal conviction.

That's why I was heartened to hear many of the candidates speak forcefully on the importance of the fundamental right to vote. It’s now up to New Jersey voters to hold our elected leaders to these democratic principles — particularly when it comes to restoring voting rights to people on parole and probation.

New Jersey currently bans almost 95,000 people from voting because of a criminal conviction. Over three-quarters of whom — about 70,000 people — have been released from prison and are on parole or probation.

They are living and working in our communities, raising families, and paying taxes. As our recent report with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law noted, New Jersey disfranchises more people living in the community than any other state in the Northeast, and more than Connecticut, Delaware, and New York combined.

The other New England states restore voting rights upon release from prison and two states — Vermont and Maine — allow incarcerated people to vote from prison. The percentage of New Jersey’s disfranchised population living in the community is on par with Georgia’s and higher than Texas’.

Systemic racism

People of color are disproportionately impacted by criminal disfranchisement laws due to well-documented systemic racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. This systemic racial discrimination is acutely felt in New Jersey, where, according to a Sentencing Project report, black residents are incarcerated at a rate twelve times higher than their white counterparts. New Jersey, shamefully, has the highest black/white racial disparity rate in the country.

New Jersey’s disfranchisement law exacerbates the racial discrimination in New Jersey’s criminal justice system by importing inequality directly into our electorate. As a result, nearly half of those who have lost their right to vote because of a criminal conviction in New Jersey are black.

Although New Jersey was one of a handful of states whose early constitutions afforded the right to vote to free black people, it was also one of the first northern states to restrict the franchise to white males in the early 19th century. While New Jersey repealed its whites-only voting restrictions after the 15th Amendment prohibited states from denying the right to vote based on race, its criminal disfranchisement law has remained in place, accomplishing indirectly what the 15th Amendment forbids it to do directly.

In addition to perpetuating racial discrimination, New Jersey’s disfranchisement law distorts the public debate, particularly on issues such as criminal justice reform and economic inequality. It results in a perverse situation in which those who have firsthand experience with and who have been most directly impacted by the criminal justice system are methodically excluded from the debate. This is despite numerous studies that have shown restoration of voting rights enhances community engagement and results in less recidivism.

The May 1 gubernatorial forum was a testament to the importance of social justice issues to our communities and to those seeking to be our next governor. All New Jerseyans — including those on parole or probation — are impacted by the monumental challenges facing our state and deserve a voice in deciding how to meet them.

Like other barriers to the franchise that have been repealed or struck down over the years, New Jersey’s criminal disfranchisement law should be seen for what it is: a relic of the past that has no place in a modern democratic society. It’s time to automatically restore voting rights upon release from prison and enfranchise our community members on parole and probation.

Scott Novakowski is associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the Institute’s inaugural Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise Social Justice Legal Advocacy Fellow.

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