NEWARK - Upon President Obama’s visit to Newark to announce initiatives to reform the criminal justice system in the United States, the ACLU-NJ issues a statement praising these efforts and recommending proposals to make the criminal justice system fairer. During his trip to Newark, President Obama will focus primarily on easing prisoners’ reentry into society after incarceration as one part of larger plans to make the criminal justice system more humane.
The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
“The ACLU of New Jersey welcomes President Barack Obama to Newark, and applauds the leadership of the president, United States Senator Cory Booker, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka in fixing our nation's broken criminal justice system. The United States currently holds 2.2 million people in prison, up from fewer than 350,000 in 1972. With five percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
“While New Jersey has worked to reduce its prison population, the state still imprisons far too many people; and they are disproportionately from low-income communities of color. If New Jersey were its own country, it would have the second highest incarceration rate in the world, just behind Cuba. Beyond the high number of prisoners, New Jersey still suffers under the tremendous racial disparity that plagues the criminal justice system across the nation. People from communities of color make up more than three quarters of all prisoners in New Jersey.
“In order to replace this broken system of mass incarceration with a smarter system of criminal justice, transformative change must happen. Our leaders need to tackle every aspect of the criminal justice system, from arrest to reentry. Reforms must include:
“These solutions will ensure that we create a smart justice system, one that is fair and humane, emphasizes prevention, and uses incarceration only as a last resort. We thank President Obama, Senator Booker, and Mayor Baraka for their vision and bold leadership on this vital civil rights issue.”
NEWARK - On the most important civil liberties issues facing the 216th Legislature, a majority in the General Assembly voted with the ACLU of New Jersey at least 90 percent of the time.
The first-ever ACLU-NJ legislative scorecard tracks the records of Assembly members on 13 key issues votes during the legislative session that began Jan. 2014. In the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, in which Assembly members are at the top of the ticket, the ACLU-NJ is releasing a scorecard of those votes to educate the public at large as well as its 20,000 members and donors who live in every single legislative district in the state. The information can be found online at https://www.aclu-nj.org/scorecard. It includes a table showing how every Assembly member voted on the issues and allows users to learn details about the scored bills, compare Assembly members’ voting records, find out who made the Honor Roll, and look up scores for legislative districts and an interactive map of New Jersey.
“The good news is that most Assembly members vote for civil liberties and civil rights most of the time. The bad news is that our elected officials aren’t always there when it counts, like with the bill to allow transgender New Jerseyans access to birth certificates that reflect their true gender,” said Ari Rosmarin, ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director. “With this kind of sound information, civil rights voters can hold elected officials accountable because they know where their representatives stand on the key issues of the day when they go to the polls.”
Of the hundreds of bills the Legislature considered, the ACLU-NJ identified 13 votes as the most central to civil rights and civil liberties, including legislation to:
Out of New Jersey’s 80 Assembly members, 32 – or 40 percent – made the ACLU-NJ’s Honor Roll, with ratings of 100 percent.
The lowest rating belonged to Assemblyman Gregory McGuckin (R-Brick) at 38 percent. Eight other members of the Assembly scored below 50 percent and also earned a spot on the ACLU-NJ’s less-than 50 percent list.
“Above all, this scorecard is a tool for public accountability. We created it to allow New Jerseyans to learn where their lawmakers stand on key issues involving our rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We’re here to ensure those who have taken a stand for our fundamental civil rights continue to act in defense of our rights and liberties, and we’re here to put pressure on those who need a refresher in what it means to defend the rights of the people. Our goal is for every elected official to achieve a 100 percent rating. Even more importantly, our goal is for every resident of New Jersey to know where their representatives stand.”
The ACLU-NJ will continue to monitor important votes as the Legislature returns for its biennial lame-duck session after the election and before the 217th Legislature is convened in January. An updated scorecard, including scores for the Senate, will mark the end of the legislative term.
Visit https://www.aclu-nj.org/scorecard to read the scorecard online, look up legislative districts, compare Assembly members on an interactive map of New Jersey, and learn about the details of the scored bills in more detail.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sent a letter to Hightstown Mayor Lawrence Quattrone (PDF) asking him to clarify Hightstown Police Department policy in light of remarks attributed to him in a Times of Trenton news story with the headline: Hightstown mayor: We are not a ‘sanctuary city.’
The story quoted the mayor saying, “If you get stopped for anything, [Hightstown police] will check your status … If you have wants or warrants against you, whether you’re a U.S. citizen, Latino, Greek, or Italian, your status will be checked and if there’s any problem, you will be turned over.”
A directive issued by the New Jersey Attorney General in 2007 instructs law enforcement officers to inquire about an individual’s immigration status only when arrested for indictable offenses or DUI offenses. A policy of routinely checking the immigration status of people stopped by police would be outside of that directive and raise serious civil rights concerns.
“Unnecessarily involving your officers in immigration enforcement undermines the public safety, rather than strengthening it,” the letter said.
The letter asks Quattrone to publicly clarify his statements; to make clear that Hightstown Police Department policies go no further in questioning individuals’ immigration status than is required by law; and to provide documentation of the department’s policies for dealing with immigrants or people thought to be immigrants.
TRENTON -- Governor Christie’s signature of S2003/A4299 will implement significant and much needed reforms to New Jersey’s juvenile justice system. The bill, sponsored by Senators Nellie Pou and Raymond Lesniak, and Assembly Members Shavonda Sumter, Charles Mainor, Benjie Wimberly, and Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, recognizes the critical need for age-appropriate treatment and access to rehabilitation for juveniles who intersect with the criminal justice system. The new law:
“These reforms to the waiver laws are consistent with the substantial body of research establishing that adolescents’ developmental immaturity renders them less culpable than adults”
The New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition is pursuing system-wide reforms of New Jersey’s juvenile justice system, including promoting alternatives to incarceration for youth and improving conditions of confinement for those who are incarcerated. Members of the Coalition’s Steering Committee include Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest at Lowenstein Sandler, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Rutgers Law School Children’s Justice Clinic in Camden and Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic in Newark.
Through legislative advocacy on this bill, as well as executive advocacy and litigation, the Coalition has sought to reform the process and circumstances under which youth may be placed in an adult prison, and to eliminate the practice of solitary confinement of juveniles. The Coalition applauds the extraordinary leadership of Senator Pou, who more than two years ago, began bringing together advocates (including members of the Coalition), retired judges, county prosecutors, the Attorney General's Office, and other stakeholders to discuss New Jersey’s juvenile justice system and how to improve it through these substantial reforms.
“The historic reforms to New Jersey's juvenile justice system just signed into law will make us fairer, smarter, and safer. While there remains more work to do, these changes are a significant step towards making the ‘justice’ in our juvenile justice system a reality,” says Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey.
“New Jersey will become the twenty-first state to prohibit the use of punitive solitary confinement by either law or practice, in line with a growing national trend. This is a first and significant step towards reducing the risk of serious harm to juveniles in secure facilities, but we still have a long way to go,” explains Natalie Kraner, Pro Bono Counsel at Lowenstein Sandler. “The new law’s data collection requirement is critical because it will afford transparency to the Juvenile Justice Commission’s continued use of solitary confinement and protect against an overbroad and prolonged use of non-punitive solitary confinement,” adds Kraner.
“Serving time in an adult facility has enormous and lifelong consequences,” remarks Laura Cohen, Director, Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers School of Law. In another important change, youth who have been waived for adult prosecution presumptively will be held in local juvenile detention centers, rather than county jails, while awaiting trial; similarly, any young person who is sentenced to a term of incarceration will be committed to the state's Juvenile Justice Commission until the age of 21 and may remain there beyond that time at the discretion of the Commission. “These reforms to the waiver laws are consistent with the substantial body of research establishing that adolescents’ developmental immaturity renders them less culpable than adults,” explains Cohen.
“While we agree that juveniles should be held accountable for their actions, we must treat juveniles who commit crimes differently than adults. These youth will return to their communities and we must equip them with the skills they need to stay out of trouble and mature into productive adults,” says Mary Cogan, Assistant Director, Advocates for Children of NJ.
“This legislation represents a much-needed paradigm shift in how New Jersey addresses juvenile delinquency issues," adds LaShawn Warren, Vice President and General Counsel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. "It moves the state closer to a rehabilitative model that appropriately factors in developmental considerations of youth and ensures progress toward racial fairness in the state juvenile justice system.”
The following is attributable to Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey. The ACLU of New Jersey is a member of the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition.
The historic reforms to New Jersey's juvenile justice system signed into law today will make us fairer, smarter, and safer. Solitary confinement of juveniles is a practice that has no place in our state and should only be used as a very last resort. Collecting data on the use of solitary confinement and the practice of trying children as adults will only serve to improve our juvenile justice system. While there remains more work to do, these changes are a significant step towards making the "justice" in our juvenile justice system a reality. The ACLU of NJ thanks Senator Pou, Assemblywoman Sumter for their leadership, and Governor Christie for signing this legislation into law today.
Image: © Richard Ross, www.juvenile-in-justice.com
NEWARK – As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie prepares to announce his candidacy today for president of the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) reissued its report card on his first term in office.
Christie earned a grade of D+ for his record on civil liberties and civil rights. Now into his second term, Christie not only continues his poor performance, but raises new concerns about his record on key matters of constitutional rights.
“As Americans begin to consider candidates for the presidency, it is vitally important that they are informed about their candidates’ records on constitutional rights and freedoms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “We hope that this guide will help voters become more informed about Governor Christie’s stance on key civil liberties and civil rights issues.”
The ACLU-NJ report card graded Christie on 12 crucial civil rights and liberties matters: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, privacy, LGBT rights, criminal justice and drug policy, transparency, separation of powers, and economic justice.
“Governor Christie’s record on civil liberties and civil rights has been a poor one,” said Ofer. “Some of his most frustrating moments have been those times when he paid lip service to the protection of rights but failed to back up words with actions. For gay and lesbian New Jerseyans seeking to marry, sick patients in need of medical marijuana, or New Jerseyans seeking to learn basic information about their state government, the Christie administration has been a failure.”
Christie’s lowest grades were in the areas of transparency, separation of church and state, and separation of powers. The governor earned higher marks in other areas, such as freedom of religion. Following are some highlights (and lowlights).
Christie’s second-term has raised other civil liberties and rights concerns. He has opposed early, in-person voting, dismissing it as an attempt at voter fraud despite the lack of evidence to support such claims. And eight months ago his administration issued an order requiring the detention of medical workers returning from one of three West African countries where they treated Ebola patients, even if they were asymptomatic. The decision was widely criticized by the medical community following the detention of a nurse, Kaci Hickox, at Newark Liberty International Airport. In the face of public pressure, he eventually released Hickox.
Finally, Christie has repeatedly stated that the Patriot Act does not violate civil liberties, despite the fact that numerous federal courts have found provisions of the Act to be unconstitutional and to violate civil liberties.
The following statement is attributable to ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer:
“The incidents involving New Jersey police and concertgoers outside of the Summer Jam concert at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford last night raise serious questions about police practices. We are aware of reports of individuals throwing bottles at responding officers, but any time law enforcement deploy tear gas, sound cannons, armored personnel carriers and riot gear in a civilian context, civil liberties are put at risk and a closer look is required.
“The Attorney General’s office should appoint an independent investigator to determine and publicly report on what led to last night’s events, whether the event was properly managed and policed, how many injuries and arrests took place, and whether the tactics and force deployed by state troopers and potentially other law enforcement personnel were appropriate. The State Police should also release its Standard Operating Procedures for its deployment of the tactics and tools it used with concertgoers last night.
“The ACLU-NJ will continue to monitor information about last night’s incident as it becomes available.”
NEWARK – In a groundbreaking ruling in an American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey case, a New Jersey judge found that people convicted of crimes as juveniles cannot be sentenced to de facto life without the possibility of parole without carefully considering the role their youth played in their crimes.
The case involved James Comer, who was sentenced at age 17 to serve 75 years in prison, more than 68 without parole. Essex County Superior Court Judge Thomas R. Vena in a ruling Friday, May 8, concurred with the ACLU-NJ that because Comer will be 86 years old when he first becomes eligible for a parole hearing, he had effectively been serving a life sentence. As a result of the ruling, Comer will be resentenced.
“The judge adopted the Supreme Court’s axiomatic observation that children are not just miniature adults. The unique nature of their brain chemistry requires that they be treated differently than adults,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “This ruling clearly affirms that before a court can condemn a child to die in prison, it must consider the things about youth that make these extreme sentences so ill-suited to juveniles.”
The ACLU-NJ argued that a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions proscribed courts from sentencing minors to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, including de facto life sentences. Consistent with these cases, Comer’s resentencing will take into account the immaturity and impetuousness that accompanies youth; his home environment at the time; the circumstances of the offense, the deficiencies of young people in handling real-world functions, such as dealing with attorneys or police officers; and the possibility of Comer’s rehabilitation.
While the judge did not share the interpretation that the Supreme Court’s rulings amounted to an absolute rejection of life sentences of minors, the judge did rule that Comer’s sentence was unconstitutional because the judge failed to factor in the hallmark factors of youth involved in his crime.
“This ruling gets New Jersey courts one step closer to the reality that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to die in prison,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg of Gibbons P.C., who along with Joseph A. Pace, also of Gibbons P.C., represented Comer on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “The question isn’t whether Comer deserves to be released – the question is whether Comer and other children charged with serious crimes deserve a meaningful opportunity to obtain release as they mature.”
Mr. Comer, now 31 years old, was sentenced in 2003 for his role in four robberies and a felony murder as a juvenile, with no meaningful consideration given to his youth at the time. Felony murder differs from murder in that if a murder is committed during the commission of a crime, everyone involved in that crime is deemed responsible for the murder, even though they did not actually kill or intend to kill. Although he was not the one who pulled the trigger, Comer received a longer sentence than his two accomplices, one who was charged with the actual killing and the other who was an adult.
The resentencing, which has not yet been scheduled, will take place in Essex County. The State plans to appeal Judge Vena’s decision. The decision is available at: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/decisions/State%20v.%20Comer%20OPINION;%2003-01-0231%20PDF.pdf
NEWARK – The ACLU of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) joined marchers participating in the 250-mile March2Justice tonight at their first stop at a community center in Newark to call for an end to police abuses and for a wholesale reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. The group included nearly 100 activists making their way from Staten Island, New York, to Washington, D.C., in a push for criminal justice reform measures.
“We are at a unique moment in our nation’s history where there is finally widespread attention being given to the problem of police abuses and a broken criminal justice system,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ, and one of the speakers at tonight’s rally. “It is fitting for this march, which spans five states, to have its first stop in Newark, a city with a long history of being plagued by police misconduct. It is now time to put an end to racial profiling and other forms of police abuses and to build a criminal justice system that treats all people with dignity and respect.”
A 2014 Department of Justice report, which came in response to an ACLU-NJ petition for a civil rights investigation, found that between 75 percent to 93 percent of all police stops in Newark lack a constitutional basis, as well as widespread racial disparities in stops and arrests and a broken internal affairs system. In response, the ACLU-NJ co-launched a new coalition, Newark Communities for Accountable Policing (N-CAP), to reform the Newark Police Department. The coalition is pushing for the creation of a strong and independent civilian complaint review board in Newark, which can serve as a model for the rest of the nation. In addition to the ACLU-NJ, the coalition comprises 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, Ironbound Community Corporation, NAACP of New Jersey State Conference, New Jersey Communities United, Newark LGBTQ Community Center and People’s Organization for Progress.
“Change starts today with a single step,” said ACLU-NJ Organizer Rashawn Davis, one of the speakers during the evening’s rally in support of March2Justice. “The next eight days represents thousands of people nationwide saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ In Newark, we are working to create a civilian review board and a host of other changes, not just for the betterment of our city, but as a model across the country. Despite recent tragedies, we have something to fight for, something to march for.”
The ACLU-NJ celebrated a groundbreaking victory for New Jersey with the signing of a new law that adds oversight to local law enforcement agencies’ acquisition of surplus military equipment. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed S2364, sponsored by Senator Nia Gill and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, into law on March 16, New Jersey became the first state to require approval from local legislative bodies before municipalities and counties can obtain military equipment through the Department of Defense’s “1033 program.”
"This victory represents a critical step forward for accountability and transparency in our towns and cities,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “For the first time ever, New Jerseyans will have a say in the decisions to acquire military weaponry being made in their name. While war winds down overseas, we must ensure that the flow of millions of dollars’ worth of surplus military weapons and equipment does not turn our communities into battlefields.”
Under the new law, local governing bodies will have to approve these acquisitions before towns can receive them. In recent decades, New Jersey law enforcement agencies have acquired nearly $33 million’s worth of military equipment, including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and assault rifles, among other inventory.
In July 2014, Bergen County came under fire for seeking two mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, and the ACLU-NJ mobilized Bergen County activists against the move. Ultimately, the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department withdrew the request.
In addition to signing S2364, Governor Christie conditionally vetoed S2365, a companion bill that would have given the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General additional oversight over the transfer of military equipment from the federal government to New Jersey counties and towns.
“The increasing militarization of police departments is a civil rights and liberties problem across the United States,” Rosmarin added. “We are proud that New Jersey is the first state in the nation to enact a law of this kind calling on local elected officials and community members to curb the growing militarization of local cops. The Governor’s decision to veto S2365, however, was a disappointment. Boosting transparency and establishing robust state-level oversight remain priorities and we look forward to working with legislative leaders and the administration to find a path forward toward accountability."
The ACLU has identified significant civil rights and civil liberties threats from the militarization of local police departments, as documented in the report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” It found that nearly 80 percent of SWAT team deployments were for executing search warrants, and it reported on racial disparities in SWAT raids. Other states, including Massachusetts, are currently considering similar legislation adding oversight to local jurisdictions’ acquisition of military equipment.