The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey strongly supports the Opportunity to Compete Act, a bill that could help thousands upon thousands in our state fulfill their dreams of a better life. Just yesterday, June 13, 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declared the use of criminal background checks a proxy for discrimination in employment, the first ruling of its kind. Clearly, the Opportunity to Compete Act could not come at a more dire time.
In an already poor job market, a candidate with a criminal record finds all doors closed. The racial disparities in the criminal justice system bear some responsibility for the high unemployment rate among people of color. By giving people who deserve a second chance a modicum of power in their job search, this legislation could eliminate some of the back-door racial and ethnic discrimination people with criminal records face on a daily basis.
Our society holds up a double standard for people with criminal records, asking them to rehabilitate themselves but placing obstacles in front of them every step of the way. Someone with a criminal history lives with the ever-present anxiety that a disclosure of their past could eclipse all of their other merits, and they brace themselves for rejection.
For countless people in New Jersey, this legislation could mean a future where their merits, and not their mistakes from the past, determine their potential. We hope the New Jersey Legislature will give people who want to become contributing members of society the chance to follow that path unhindered.
Newark, NJ – According to a new report (5.64mb PDF) by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Blacks in New Jersey were arrested for marijuana possession at 2.84 times the rate of whites in 2010, despite comparable marijuana usage rates. The report, Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests, released today, is the first ever to examine state and county marijuana arrest rates nationwide by race. The findings show that while there were pronounced racial disparities in marijuana arrests 10 years ago, they have grown significantly worse.
“The War on Marijuana has disproportionately been a war on people of color,” says Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU and one of the primary authors of the report. “State and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against Black people and communities, needlessly ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system at tremendous human and financial cost.”
In New Jersey, the counties with the largest racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests were Hunterdon, Ocean and Monmouth. Statewide, police officers made 21,659 arrests for marijuana possession in 2010, and marijuana possession rates accounted for 43.4 percent of all drug arrests in 2010. In the past 10 years, marijuana possession arrest rates have risen 8.9 percent and the racial disparities among such arrests have increased 33.4 percent.
“This report confirms what advocates across the country have known for a long time: that the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ is a failure, and it needs to end,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “The ‘War on Marijuana’ in particular has wrought tragic consequences for a generation of young Black men and their loved ones. That’s why advocates throughout our state have been pushing for legislation for years that would decriminalize marijuana and as a result curb the racially disparate punishment of low-level drug offenses.”
The ACLU-NJ supports two bills in the New Jersey legislature, S1977 and A1465, to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, punishable with a $100 civil penalty rather than the potential of prison time. S1977 designates 50 grams as the upper limit, while A1465 designates that limit as 15 grams. New Jersey legalized medicinal marijuana in 2010, but implementation of the law has been stymied since its enactment.
The ACLU-NJ continues to call on local and state police to stop the practices that lead to disparate enforcement of marijuana possession laws. The ACLU-NJ recommends that all police departments throughout the state focus on more serious crimes, end racial profiling and stop unfair use of stop-and-frisk tactics. The federal government should also stop providing incentives to police departments for making arrests, and instead encourage stronger transparency, data collection, and external oversight of departments. These incentives contribute to the disparate enforcement of marijuana possession laws.
Despite the fact that a majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization, New Jersey spent an estimated $127 million enforcing marijuana laws in 2010. Nationally, states spent an estimated $3.61 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010 alone.
“The aggressive policing of marijuana is time-consuming, costly, racially biased, and doesn’t work,” says Edwards. “These arrests have a significant detrimental impact on people’s lives, as well as on the communities in which they live. When people are arrested for possessing even tiny amounts of marijuana, they can be disqualified from public housing and student financial aid, lose or find it more difficult to obtain employment, lose custody of their child, and be deported. In addition, the targeted enforcement of marijuana possession laws against people of color creates a community of mistrust and reduced cooperation with the police, which damages public safety. Furthermore, despite being a priority for many police departments across the states for the past decade, the aggressive enforcement of marijuana laws has not even accomplished one of law enforcement’s purported goals: to eradicate or even diminish the use of marijuana.” Key findings from the report include:
“Many politicians treat marijuana as a punch line, even as the most vulnerable among us sit in prison cells, losing years of their lives for offenses that the powers-that-be all too often consider a joke,” Ofer said. “The criminal justice system in the U.S. and New Jersey must answer the call from the majority of the people to end anti-drug policies that for the most part target drug use among people of color.”
In the report, the organization urges lawmakers and law enforcement to reform policing practices, including ending racial profiling as well as unconstitutional stops, frisks, and searches, and also to reform state and federal funding streams that incentivize police to make low-level drug arrests.
Review New Jersey-specific data, view multimedia, and read the ACLU’s report: The War on Marijuana in Black and White.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) argued today in New Jersey Supreme Court that a defendant has a right to waive his appearance at a sentencing hearing.
“A sentencing hearing is a critical stage of the trial process where a judge is given information to determine an appropriate sentence,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Alexander Shalom, who argued the ACLU-NJ’s position. “The hearing, however, is not intended to be punitive in and of itself.”
The victim’s mother in the case, Michelle Ruggieri has asked the court to compel the defendant, Guiseppe Tedesco to appear in court. The ACLU-NJ filed a friend-of-the court brief in State v. Guiseppe Tedesco, arguing that the Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights provides victims with the opportunity to address the court at sentencing, but it does not provide the right to address the defendant.
“A defendant’s absence from a sentencing in no way diminishes the family’s ability to meaningfully participate in the process,” states the ACLU-NJ brief. “Simply put, a court cannot compel the defendant’s presence at the sentencing hearing at the victim’s behest in order to force the defendant to atone for his wrongful acts and be subjected to the opprobrium of the court for his devastating actions prior to the imposition of sentence.”
NEWARK – The City of Camden has agreed to pay $3.5 million in damages to 88 people whose convictions were overturned because of widespread corruption in the Camden Police Department. The settlement stems from a series of lawsuits filed against Camden Police in federal district court and state superior court over the last two years, after five officers were charged with a number of federal civil rights violations from conduct involving evidence planting, fabrication of reports and evidence, and perjury.
The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of New Jersey filed one of those lawsuits on behalf of Joel Barnes, a Camden resident who was arrested in 2008 after police planted drugs on him.
“This prolonged campaign to plant evidence on innocent people was a true stain on Camden Police and represents one of the most serious forms of police corruption,” said Alexander Shalom, policy counsel for the ACLU-NJ. “Unfortunately, the systems that are designed to prevent corruption and protect the public eroded and allowed rogue officers to operate unabated for years.”
The Camden City Council approved the settlement at its meeting this week. The court has to approve the settlement. No date has been set yet for the court to review the agreement.
Three of the officers involved in the conspiracy, Jason Stetser, Kevin Parry and Dan Morris pleaded guilty in federal court to corruption. Officer Antonio Figueroa was convicted by a jury, and officer Robert Bayard was acquitted. The officers’ actions went undetected because of a breakdown in the department’s Internal Affairs unit, which was understaffed and used antiquated systems.
As a result, the 88 plaintiffs in the cases served a combined 109 years in prison on their overturned convictions. The corruption has also cost the city millions of dollars in legal fees.
“Because of the actions of these officers, and the Camden Police Department’s failure to identify and stop the corruption within its ranks, these men and women were deprived of their liberty and will never recoup the time they lost from their loved ones,” said Jason D. Williamson, staff attorney at the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project and co-counsel on the Barnes case. “We hope that other police departments will take note of what went wrong in Camden and take measures to prevent it from happening in their departments.”
Barnes, 30, a lifelong Camden resident, stopped by a friend’s house on Aug. 2, 2008, to help set up for a barbecue later that day. Police raided the home in search of illegal drugs. Barnes, along with other occupants in the house, was herded into the kitchen. An officer slipped handcuffs on Barnes and emptied Barnes’s pockets. There were no drugs. When officers repeatedly asked where the drugs were, Barnes answered truthfully, saying he did not know.
Figueroa pulled out a bag containing drugs and said, “Tell us where the shit’s at and we’ll make this disappear.”
When Barnes insisted he did not know if there were drugs in the house, the police supplied the incriminating evidence and charged him with possession with intent to distribute. On Feb. 23, 2009, fearing his testimony would not be believed, and facing the prospect of even more jail time if convicted at trial, he pleaded guilty to a crime he did not commit.
While in prison, Barnes read about the Camden corruption case and recognized the names of the officers involved. Figueroa and Bayard were among the officers who were present when Barnes was arrested.
On Feb. 2, 2010, the New Jersey Superior Court vacated Barnes’s conviction. Barnes was finally freed on June 8, 2010, with the help of the ACLU, but only after serving 418 days in prison.
NEWARK — A comprehensive study of prosecutor error released today by the ACLU-NJ and Professor George C. Thomas III of Rutgers School of Law–Newark found low rates of errors but an alarming lack of accountability or regular training to prevent repeat lapses by New Jersey prosecutors. The report, titled “Trial and Error: A Comprehensive Study of Prosecutorial Conduct in New Jersey,” recommends changes at the state and county level and reveals a noteworthy range of error rates in individual New Jersey counties in the process.
“Prosecutors have a heavy responsibility as representatives of the state, and most take their obligations extremely seriously,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Alexander Shalom, one of the authors of the report. “Because prosecutors are largely immune from civil liability, and because they represent the government’s authority, it’s both more difficult and critical to hold them accountable for mistakes that interfere with a fair trial. Without a way to hold prosecutors accountable for all but the most outrageous violations, New Jersey leaves too many opportunities for justice to slip through the cracks.”
The report examined allegations of error raised on appeal in the state between 2005 and 2011, and tracked the number of case decisions reversed based on prosecutorial error and the discipline they faced if they committed multiple errors. Prosecutorial error covers a range of actions, including failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, making improper remarks to the jury, or appealing to emotion rather than facts. Most errors, according to the report, occur during summations.
The report found that of the 343 prosecutors accused of committing error, not one — including the 30 prosecutors who were found to have committed multiple errors — received discipline for in-court behavior. This is a stark contrast to the discipline that other types of attorneys receive for errors. The report also revealed that the state of New Jersey has no functional system for identifying, disciplining or eliminating prosecutor error except in the most egregious cases.
The report found surprising disparities in New Jersey’s counties. Warren County, for example, represented only 1.4 percent of the state’s convictions but had 5.7 percent of its harmful errors. Camden County, however, had 6.2 percent of the state’s convictions but only 3.1 percent of total errors, as well as no reversed convictions.
The authors recommend mandatory reporting of error, which is only optional under the current system, making it harder for disciplinary boards to collect enough information to determine when sanctions would be appropriate. This is especially problematic in cases of serious or repeated error that do not amount to an ethical lapse. The report also recommends heightened training, supervision and discipline within prosecutors’ offices.
The authors also determined that, in order to provide prosecutors with maximum guidance, courts should determine whether conduct constitutes error in every case in which the issue is raised. Defense attorneys, as well, have an important role in preventing prosecutorial error in the form of objecting during the trial.
“The American justice system at its core holds people accountable for their actions, and it only makes sense for those principles to apply to prosecutors,” said George C. Thomas III, a professor at Rutgers-Newark School of Law and one of the authors of the report. “Fortunately for all of us in society, almost all prosecutors uphold their duties to see that the laws are fairly administered. To enhance our pursuit of justice, however, we need better channels for creating consequences — or at least guarantees of future improvement — when those tasked with upholding the law fall short.”
Newark, N.J. - For five decades, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has been a gale force in the most critical social debates of our time and a vigilant guardian of civil rights for all.
In June, the ACLU-NJ will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding and celebrate its standing as one of the largest and most active affiliates in the nation. Created to counter the growing pressures on civil liberties in the state, the affiliate's first official meeting took place on the night of June 16, 1960. Since its start, the affiliate, which has continued to keep its headquarters in Newark, has seen its membership multiply nearly 10-fold, from 1,600 people to more than 15,000.
"We believe that the liberties in the Bill of Rights belong to every American, to all the people in New Jersey regardless of their political beliefs, race, religion or national origin," ACLU-NJ founder and longtime President Emil Oxfeld said in the original press release announcing the formation of the state's affiliate. "We believe these freedoms must be exercised if democracy in our state is to grow and thrive."
Oxfeld went on to list issues that desperately needed attention at the time - due process, racial discrimination, the separation of church and state, and freedom from censorship - all principles the ACLU still defends daily.
"While some of the issues raised in our cases over the years seem archaic by today's standards, many haven't changed at all," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs, who has led the affiliate since 1999, including during the biggest membership spike in its history. "The law has advanced remarkably in areas like women's rights, lesbian and gay rights, and safeguarding personal privacy, but with issues like free speech, police practices and religious freedom, no fight ever stays won."
"The ACLU of New Jersey has been a leader in the crucial civil liberties battles of our time," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the national ACLU. "While each new era brings a wave of assaults on freedom, the ACLU of New Jersey responds swiftly and decisively, protecting the rights of all Garden State residents. It has proven its value on the American political landscape."
Since opening its doors and springing into action - its first official undertaking was commending the Clifton Library's stance against banning books like Lady Chatterley's Lover - the ACLU-NJ has doggedly worked for justice and equality in New Jersey.
In its first decade the ACLU-NJ took strong action following the 1967 Newark Rebellion. Staffers took to the streets in the aftermath, painstakingly cataloguing police abuses to the ACLU-NJ would refer to in its demands for reform. The New Jersey affiliate also emerged even more progressive than the national ACLU, becoming one of the first state affiliates to take a stand against the Vietnam War.
Since those early years, the ACLU-NJ has grown into one of the country's largest and most active state affiliates, with a record of milestones that has earned it a role on the national stage. Among its accomplishments, the ACLU-NJ:
The ACLU-NJ is celebrating the clients, attorneys, leaders and volunteers - many involved in the cases highlighted above - who have built its legacy, from its founders to its future. The stories of these 50 Faces of Liberty can be found at the ACLU-NJ website, http://www.aclu-nj.org
"Society has changed dramatically since our founding, but we've never lost the fire that fuels the ACLU's advocacy," Jacobs added. "We can't always predict what challenges lie ahead for liberty in a changing world, but whatever they are, the ACLU stands ready to defend the fundamental rights of ordinary Americans."
The year-long commemoration will culminate November 4 at the NJ Freedom Fest: A night of laughter and liberties, hosted by comedian Jimmy Tingle and featuring faces from the ACLU past and present, to be held at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick.
NEWARK, NJ - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) today filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of five former New Jersey Attorneys General opposing the blanket strip search policies of the Burlington County Jail and Essex County Correctional Facility. The jails' policies currently require strip searches for people charged with but not convicted of minor offenses, and even when there is no reasonable suspicion that an arrestee possesses contraband.
"Strip searching every detainee is unconstitutional, it contributes little to jail security and it creates an intolerable risk of subjecting detainees to needless humiliation," said Ed Barocas, Legal Director for the ACLU-NJ. "There is no legitimate reason for these types of policies to exist."
The amicus brief , filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on behalf of former New Jersey Attorneys General Robert J. Del Tufo, Deborah T. Poritz, John J. Farmer Jr., Peter C. Harvey and Zulima V. Farber, defends the privacy and Fourth Amendment rights of Albert Florence.
Florence filed a lawsuit in 2005 charging officials at the two jails with unconstitutionally subjecting him to two strip searches despite a lack of reasonable suspicion. The searches followed his erroneous arrest during a 2005 traffic stop for a fine he had already paid. He was ordered during the searches to squat naked and, while standing in front of prison guards, to lift his genitals.
"Being forced to strip naked is humiliating, and people charged with minor crimes shouldn't be strip searched unless there's a reason to think they're hiding something," said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project.
Consistent with legal precedent, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez ruled in February 2009 that the strip search of Florence violated the Constitution. However, officials representing both Burlington and Essex Counties appealed the decision, placing the case before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
The former Attorneys General's brief notes that Judge Rodriguez's decision prevents strip searches only for non-indictable offenses that do not involve contraband and when there is no reason to suspect contraband. Additionally, his decision does not preclude strip searches following visitation.
Previous federal rulings have also banned strip searches of low-level arrestees unless jail officials can prove reasonable suspicion that the inmate may have drugs, guns or other illegal contraband. The standard of reasonable suspicion still allows prison officials to use broad discretion in determining if a strip search is necessary.
A copy of the amicus brief is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/florence-v-board-chosen-freeholders-county-burlington-et-al-amicus-brief
Additional information about ACLU-NJ is available online at: http://www.aclu-nj.org
Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at: http://www.aclu.org/prison
TRENTON — In a landmark victory for civil rights, the New Jersey Senate today passed a bill (S1866) revising a decades-old policy that had punished people more harshly for committing non-violent drug crimes within several hundred feet of schools, unfairly targeting city dwellers. Once signed into law, individual judges will be able to use their discretion to issue fair sentences appropriate to the crimes committed.
"This legislation is smart on crime, not soft on crime. It marks a major step forward toward achieving justice in New Jersey's criminal justice system," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU-NJ. "New Jersey's judges will now have authority to sentence people based on the severity of the crime, not the location."
This legislation overturns the drug-free school zone law, which mandated lengthy sentences for any drug crime committed near a school. As a result, people in New Jersey's more densely packed areas — for example, cities like Newark, Camden, Jersey City or New Brunswick — have been subject to a stricter standard of justice than those in the suburbs. Over the course of the drug-free school zone policy, 96 percent of those arrested for drug-free school offenses in New Jersey were black or Latino.
The Assembly passed the companion legislation, A2762, last year, and will need to vote on it once again to concur with the Senate version. Gov. Jon Corzine has said he will sign the bill once it reaches his desk.
This legislation promises fairness not only to New Jersey citizens relying on the criminal justice system, but to taxpayers. New Jersey's prisons and jails are dangerously overcrowded and many non-violent offenders are serving sentences much longer than needed. Judges will be able to decide the appropriate punishments, and New Jerseyans will know that everyone, everywhere across the state has a fairer shot at justice.
Changing this law has been a top priority for the ACLU-NJ over the past decade, in a broad coalition with organizations including the Coalition of Community Corrections Providers of New Jersey, Corporation for Supportive Housing, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Hispanic Directors Association, Latino Leadership Alliance, New Jersey Association on Correction, Volunteers of American Delaware Valley and Women Who Never Give Up. In addition, cities like Newark and Camden have passed resolutions supporting S1866.
NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is turning the tables by setting up checkpoints of its own -- checkpoints to hold police accountable.
On October 22, in honor of International Day Against Police Brutality, the ACLU-NJ and People's Organization for Progress are holding a march through Downtown Newark with three checkpoints at sites related to police practices.
WHAT: A press conference followed by a march and rally through Newark to recognize International Day Against Police Brutality
DATE: Wednesday, October 22, 2008, 4:30 p.m.
CHECKPOINT 1: Stating of Demands for Reform
The Governor's Offices in Newark
153 Halsey Street, Newark
CHECKPOINT 2: Getting the Word Out
Distributing Know Your Rights cards at Newark Penn Station:
CHECKPOINT 3: Vigil for Victims of Police Misconduct
To honor the victims of police abuse and the officers committed to accountability Offices of the Brazilian Voice newspaper
412 Chestnut Street, the Ironbound
The march, a part of the ACLU-NJ's statewide police accountability campaign "Law and Disorder: Police Accountability Unit," will honor the victims of police abuse and recognize police officers committed to accountability within their departments. Different colored armbands will identify notable people.
In its police accountability campaign, the ACLU-NJ is working with police departments to create responsible police practices and training community leaders to prevent police abuse in their own neighborhoods.
Newark, NJ - The ACLU-NJ praised lawmakers today as Governor Jon Corzine signed a measure to end capital punishment in the state of New Jersey. The bill, which passed the state legislature last week with bipartisan majorities, replaces the death penalty with life imprisonment without possibility of parole. New Jersey is the first state since 1965 to legislatively repeal the death penalty.
"The death penalty is an archaic, inhumane and ineffective practice that most nations abandoned long ago" says ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "It has proven fundamentally unfair and discriminatory, too often resulting in the execution of innocent people."
The bill was introduced in November after the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission concluded that capital punishment does not deter crime. The Commission found that capital punishment is "inconsistent with evolving standards of decency."
In addition to lawmakers, Jacobs acknowledged the tireless work of death penalty opponents, including the remarkable leadership of the New Jersey Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and ACLU members from across New Jersey who lobbied their representatives in support of abolishment.
Gov. Corzine specifically thanked the ACLU for its dedication to this important issue. "I also want to thank advocacy groups, particularly . . . the ACLU and there are many other groups that joined in this process and I am eternally grateful," said Corzine.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, New Jersey joins 13 states and the District of Columbia that do not use execution as a means of punishment.
"This is historic progress towards the end this cruel and futile punishment," says Jacobs. "We hope it will generate momentum in the campaign to end capital punishment nationwide."
The legislation (S171/A3716) was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union), Senator Robert J. Martin (R-Morris/Passaic), Senator Shirley K. Turner (D-Mercer) and Senator Nia H. Gill (D-Essex/Passaic). It was sponsored in the Assembly by Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo (D-Essex/Union), Assemblyman Christopher Bateman (R-Morris/Somerset), Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (D-Bergen), Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden/Gloucester).