As we move into the second half of this election year, it’s important to take stock of the progress we’ve made and the work we have left to do. In preparing to cast a ballot this fall, it’s imperative to know how Legislative leaders have taken action, where they’ve fallen short, and what can still be done before the polls open.
In the past six months, we’ve seen multiple ACLU-NJ priorities advance through the Legislature. We’ve also faced extraordinary opposition to addressing some of our state’s most pressing civil rights issues. Here’s our snapshot of 2023 so far.
Building a budget that reflects our values
A state budget is a glaring reflection of its values, and New Jersey’s budget is no exception. This year, the ACLU-NJ advocated for meaningful investments to expand services that support all New Jerseyans, pushing Legislative leaders to act and resulting in a budget that reflects a reality moving toward a more just future.
We called for a transparent and accountable cannabis community reinvestment process. We pushed for revenue from cannabis sales tax to be allocated to communities most harmed by the past criminalization. We demanded that no money earned through cannabis legalization be spent on law enforcement. And, in the end, we saw robust support in the budget that created the following investment infrastructure around cannabis legalization:
- Community-based and hospital-based violence intervention programs that create alternatives to policing.
- Additional resources for reentry support services.
- Summer and afterschool enrichment programs for youth.
Technical assistance and access to capital for New Jerseyans interested in entering the cannabis industry, with a focus on supporting those most harmed by marijuana criminalization.
We called for more equitable systems for New Jerseyans to exercise their right to legal representation. When exposed to the criminal legal system, everyone has the right to an attorney. Every New Jerseyan – regardless of income level – should be able to access a public defender when accused of a crime without taking on debt, and we saw our calls for change reflected in this year’s budget, which now allocates:
- $4.4 million to eliminate public defender fees.
- $5 million to provide legal representation or other services to New Jerseyans facing eviction.
- $8.2 million to provide legal representation to New Jerseyans facing detention and deportation.
Passing legislation that creates a more just state
New Jersey has the opportunity to be a national leader on a host of civil rights and civil liberties fronts. We’ve seen lawmakers take measured action this year regarding some of the ACLU-NJ's top priorities, including reproductive freedom and the right to counsel. Here are some important bills that have passed in the Legislature in 2023 so far:
- Eliminates fees, liens, and warrants issued for public defender services (S3771/A5587).
- Requires establishment of new State website with information on rights related to, and health benefits coverage for, reproductive health care services (S3275/A4829).
- Requires contractors to retain incumbent workers for 90 days (S2389/A4682).
- Requires Office of the Public Defender to provide representation at parole revocation proceedings (S3772/A5671).
- Creates expedited motion and process for dismissal of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (S2802/A4393).
- Replaces statutory terms regarding alcohol and substance use (S3511/A5096).
Passing these pieces of legislation was an important step forward, but there is much more to be done. The ACLU-NJ continues to urge lawmakers to take comprehensive action on some of our nation’s key issues, including police accountability, reproductive freedom, and immigrants’ rights, to name just a few.
Pushing for progress and rejecting fearmongering
The ACLU-NJ continues to call for the passage of a slate of bills that would safeguard New Jerseyans’ most fundamental civil rights and civil liberties. We must not let racially biased, exclusionary, and regressive fearmongering derail the progress we’ve made or prevent New Jersey from being decisive in our ability to be a fairer, more just state for all who call it home.
To increase police accountability, we continue to call for full transparency for police disciplinary records and granting community review boards subpoena power, with the ability to hold concurrent investigations. These changes would begin to curb excessive police power and place power with communities, especially communities of color that bear the brunt of law enforcement.
To expand reproductive freedom, we must make the right to abortion care accessible to all who need it by passing the Reproductive Equity Act. Abortion remains legal in New Jersey, and has been protected by legislation, but there is much more to do: we must ensure that abortion is a right not just in name, but in practice, we must expand access to abortion for communities who are undocumented and uninsured, and we must support abortion providers and remove barriers that push this care out of reach for many in our state.
To protect immigrants’ rights, we continue to urge lawmakers to pass the Values Act – a bill that will allow New Jerseyans to seek support from state and local agencies without fear of deportation – as well as legislation to increase language access at government agencies across the state.
Moving toward a brighter future, together
The ACLU-NJ is entering the second half of 2023 as hopeful as ever before. We’ll keep working to make New Jersey a national leader on civil rights and civil liberties, and you can join us by taking action on key issues and contacting your lawmakers today.