Who: Amol Sinha
Hometown: Jersey City
What he does: Executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union — New Jersey
How he got into civil rights law: Sinha was not sure what he wanted to do when he was growing up in Lawrenceville, but said it was interesting to be part of diversification of the community, which, like many others in New Jersey, saw a large influx in immigrants and their children during the 1990s.
“You could literally feel the diversity growing,” said Sinha, son of two immigrants from India. “It was wonderful how quickly and meaningfully the town diversified.”
However, he also sometimes saw his family treated differently because of their South Asian background and that made him decide he wanted to do something about it.
“I didn’t know I wanted to go into law,” he said. “What I did know was that I wanted to address injustices in the world.”
Sinha studied journalism and economics at New York University, then decided to go to law school after graduation. His coursework at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, from which he graduated in 2010, was all about the protection of civil rights.
“I would not recommend this to anyone, but in law school, I avoided all practice courses. Securities law? I don’t even know what securities are,” Sinha said. “I took four courses in the First Amendment alone. Basically, when I got out, I was only qualified to do one thing: civil rights law.”
Not his first ACLU job: After getting his law degree, Sinha considered himself lucky to quickly land a dream job protecting civil rights: He became chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union in Suffolk County. It was a great position in that it was much more than just writing briefs and arguing in court, but “a real mix of practicing law, policy work, and community-based work,” he said.
“I used to call myself the civil rights diplomat for Suffolk County,” Sinha said. “There’s a lot of value in addressing problems before they amount to a legal case.”
Many of the cases he was involved in on Long Island were criminal, so Sinha said he developed relationships with the Suffolk County Police Department and Sheriff’s Office. The chapter, working with allies, convinced Suffolk to stop honoring federal immigration detainers — although that policy since has been rolled back. It also successfully defeated unconstitutional policing and surveillance schemes. The chapter went beyond that, as well, and investigated public schools that prohibited immigrant students from enrolling.
Going national: After heading the Suffolk NYCLU for five years, Sinha took a role with a broader reach. He became a state policy advocate at the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted using DNA testing and seeks to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustices. Sinha worked in several states, including Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Virginia, on criminal justice reform laws.
“It was incredibly meaningful work. I can’t even describe the feelings,” Sinha said, discussing his work with innocent people finally released from jail after years or decades to time served for crimes they didn’t commit. “There was such a mix of emotions — feeling happy for them, pride in having helped them, then anger at how this injustice could happen.”
“I believe the Innocence Project is one of the most important organizations in the nation, if not the world,” he added.
Returning to work in New Jersey: It was an opening he couldn’t pass up. Coming back to work in New Jersey to head the ACLU here was “a perfect storm in so many ways,” Sinha said. His wife, whom he married over the summer, is from New Jersey. His entire family lives here. “It seemed fitting to do what I can for the state that gave so much to me,” he added.
This is also a great time to be working in New Jersey, with the imminent change in administrations in Trenton, said Sinha, who took over the state office September 1.
“It’s an exciting time in New Jersey, especially with everything that is happening on the federal level,” he said. “We have an opportunity to collaborate to an extent not experienced in a while in New Jersey. We are going to push for things we couldn’t have even imagined a couple of months ago.”
Ambitious goals: Sinha said the ACLU is going to be working toward an agenda that is “progressive, inclusive” and should make New Jersey stand out as a leader across the country.
Despite the state’s reputation as a “blue” state with liberal attitudes, New Jersey is worse off than many places in some respects. For instance, it is among the most racially segregated states in the nation, both in housing and in the public schools. And the criminal justice system seems weighted against minorities. Sinha said blacks are three times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, for example, with that ratio far worse in some municipalities. And for every prison inmate in New Jersey who is white, 12 are black.
Legalizing marijuana is one of Sinha’s top priorities. The ACLU wants to see that any bill to do that “deals with racial injustice in many ways.” It should include a system to help people expunge their records of some marijuana offenses, that allows someone who had a marijuana conviction to work in the legal marijuana marketplace, and a mechanism to send some of the proceeds from legal sales back into communities “ravaged by the war on drugs,” Sinha said.
Protecting and expanding voting rights is another ACLU priority. New Jersey already may have strong laws in this area, but they could be even stronger, Sinha said. The organization will be pushing for modernizing the voting system and allowing for a person to register to vote online and as late as election day.
“Nobody who wants to vote who is also eligible should be barred from voting,” Sinha said.
And the ACLU will be working to end disenfranchisement for those convicted of an indictable offense by restoring voting rights for some 95,000 people who currently remain ineligible to vote while they are on parole or probation.
The group’s third priority will be to ensure immigrants’ rights to ensure that the state is “as welcoming, open and inclusive as possible,” Sinha said. To this end, the ACLU wants to make sure the undocumented are able to drive legally in the state and are eligible for financial aid to go to college. The group is also seeking to end cooperation by local law enforcement with federal immigration officials to detain people simply on the suspicion of being undocumented.
“We want to make sure local officials know that they don’t have to comply with these programs,” Sinha said.
On alert: A final priority for Sinha is to remain alert for the next threat to civil rights coming from Washington, D.C., that the ACLU may need to answer.
“It is a frustrating time,” Sinha said. “Every day, I wake up to a new news alert about something going on in the federal government, and I can bet it will not be the last alert of the day. The state has the responsibility to challenge the federal government. We live in a state that is welcoming and diverse. We can do better than the federal government.”
With chaos comes strength: After Donald Trump’s election and early in his tenure, the ACLU was one of the organizations that saw a huge increase in donations. Support from the so-called “resistance” has not abated.
“The ACLU is stronger than we have ever been,” Sinha said. “People see us as the first line of defense against the assault on civil rights.”
He noted the ACLU was instrumental in fighting back the initial Trump administration travel bans that targeted people from predominantly Muslim countries and said people’s rights are being threatened in a way that millennials have never seen before. These attacks have created a movement that is still strong across the country.
“I feel that continued energy; every day, we get calls from people who want to do something,” Sinha said. “Every time there is a new tweet, we get a bump in that energy. I don’t know if that is sustainable energy, but we need to harness that to make sure that they know in Washington that this is not just a group on the lefty fringe, but a majority of the population feels this way.”