By Erin Delmore
“So many here tonight have a great concern about the justice system and how it affects each of us,” said Rev. Kenneth Saunders.
A group of New Jersey and the nation’s most powerful advocates for criminal justice reform took the stage at North Stelton A.M.E Church in Pisactaway Tuesday evening, at U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s invitation. They call their fight the most pressing civil rights issue of our time.
“I just want you all to know that this gathering right here is a gathering of urgency, that we are in the midst of a crisis that has never really been seen before in humanity. What’s going on in our own country, such a violation of our common principles and ideals. This is not a Republican thing, not a Democratic thing, not a right, not a left, not a conservative, not a liberal thing. This is an American crisis,” Booker said.
Booker’s become a national leader in the movement to reform America’s drug laws and stem the ballooning prison population by fighting against mandatory minimum sentencing and advocating for more discretion by judges. He’s worked at the national and state level to reintegrate ex-felons into the community.
“The worst type of privilege in America, the most dangerous type of privilege, is for there to be a serious problem out there — a really serious problem — but because it’s not affecting you or your family directly, think it’s not that much of a problem,” he said.
Criminal justice reform is an issue that touches every corner of the state and nearly every household through the lens of law enforcement, addiction and the economy.
“New Jerseyans need to understand we are spending billions of our tax dollars, New Jersey alone. This nation, trillions of dollars of our tax money, to lock up nonviolent offenders for the longest prison terms on the planet Earth,” said Booker.
While America is home to only five percent of the world’s population, it’s home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. It’s a proportion the advocates gathered Tuesday argue, is unsustainable. Their question: Where are we headed?
“I’m very worried that the incoming administration has the potential to take us back to where we were before. And we in the civil rights community are not going to allow that to happen,” said Richard Smith, President of the NJ NAACP.
Some have anxiety over where civil rights issues are headed under the new administration. So how do you push this issue through? How do you get a national spotlight to make progress in this climate?
“The coalition to emerge in the Senate will not go away. I’m very confident that Chuck Grassley, who will probably remain the chairman of the judiciary committee, who really came together with me and other people on the left, to form some broad-based legislation. That’s not going to go anywhere,” said Booker.
“The attorney general has a pulpit to talk about things, to create priorities,” U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman said.
“The morning where I heard about Jeff Sessions, the person who’s nominated, I felt a sense of dread that if he is the person, the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, what he could do from that office to rollback gains on civil rights, LGBTQ rights, on criminal justice reform and a whole host of things,” Booker said.
Questions were brought up, like who is the most important person in the courtroom?
“The prosecutor — he or she can decide to either move that case forward or to shut the entire case down. So in that respect prosecutors have a tremendous amount of power that we also have to check,” Jiles Shipp, former president of NOBLE, said.
“There’s implicit racial bias built throughout our sentencing system so if you are Latino in America, you are probably some of the most likely to get mandatory minimum. And that’s the problem that I have often with our criminal justice system is that it bakes in a lot of the biases within our society,” Booker said.
Dr. Todd Clear, a professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, has worked with a number of people about the barriers to reentry.
“The people who run the prison system in New Jersey will tell you, if you have a lot of folks who are incarcerated also going to college classes the prison runs better. These are people who study at night, who help people study. The folks that are doing long sentences in prison who are attending college become mentors for other students who want to learn to get into college. We have a waiting list for the spaces in our college program at Rutgers University that is twice as large as the program itself and it’s already the largest program in the country,” Clear said.
“It costs $35,000 to keep someone in federal prison for a year. It’s a lot cheaper to send that guy to college,” said Fishman.
Nearly 90,000 New Jersey adults and 6 million people nationwide can’t vote because they were incarcerated or are on probation or parole. Does that have a bearing on national, state and local elections?
“If we’re talking about reintegrating people into society after they have served their sentence, then voting is one of those tools that helps people feel a part of their communities,” said Donita Judge, project director at the Advancement Project.
The hundreds of people in attendance took to heart our offer to share their ideas and questions after the panel discussion. Booker shared a word of advice with the group: Don’t let your inability to do everything undermine your ability to do something.