New Jersey is home to some 80,000 citizens - most of them African American or Latino - who live and work in our state but cannot vote because they are on parole or probation.
A lawsuit filed recently in the Superior Court in Union County by the ACLU challenges New Jersey's policy of denying these individuals the right to vote, especially given the law's discriminatory impact on minorities.
As prison populations have continued to grow, and the U.S. public has come to recognize that racism plagues our criminal justice system, the injustice of felony disfranchisement has become an urgent concern for civil-rights advocates across America.
Policies on disfranchisement vary. In 48 states (all but Maine and Vermont) prisoners cannot vote; in 13 states, a felony conviction effectively results in a lifetime ban that continues long after the completion of a sentence; only 15 states, such as New Jersey, disfranchise people on probation or parole.
As a result of felony disfranchisement laws, 4.2 million Americans, or one in 50 adults, have lost the right to vote.
Many experts in criminal justice say that no public policy supports the practice; on the contrary, modern thought favors allowing such persons full rights of citizenship to ease their reentry into society. Even the American Bar Association last summer supported restoring the vote to parolees and probationers.
It benefits all of society if people rehabilitating or reintegrating after a criminal conviction have ways to meaningfully engage and contribute in civic life, such as voting. And a thriving democracy in New Jersey needs the active participation of all of its citizens.
Not only is disfranchisement bad public policy, but it's made worse because it disproportionately affects minorities. More than one-third of the total disfranchised population in America are African American men.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 13 percent of all monthly drug users in America are black. (That's about the same as the percentage of the population that's black.) But 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession are black; 58 percent of those convicted of drug possession are black; and 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession are black.
No surprise that felony disfranchisement laws have their roots in the Jim Crow tradition, which produced poll taxes, literacy tests, and other racially biased schemes for diluting black voting power.
Disfranchisement has a devastating impact on the voting strength of the African American and Latino communities. This disparate impact takes on special significance because of the recent admission by public officials in New Jersey that the grossly disproportionate number of minority citizens in the state's prisons is, in significant part, a consequence of racial profiling. Because minorities are more often investigated and arrested - and thereby prosecuted and convicted - solely because of their ethnicity, we can trace the loss of voting rights to race discrimination.
The war on drugs provides stark evidence of the latter fact. The majority of disfranchised citizens did not commit violent offenses. In 2000, 11 percent of federal prisoners were violent offenders and 57 percent were drug offenders. Drug offenses comprised 60.9 percent of the growth in the federal prison system from 1990-1999.
In New Jersey, from 1982 to 2001, the percentage of inmates in state prison for drug offenses increased from 12 percent to 34 percent. During the same period, the number of non-Hispanic whites in the state's prisons dropped from 31 percent to 18 percent, even though every national and state survey reports that drug use is constant across racial and ethnic groups.
Drug offenses, more than other crimes, result from street interactions with police. Unlike murder, rape, burglary, and other such crimes, which are investigated after the fact, most drug arrests result from police stops of motorists and pedestrians. So the people most subject to stops end up in police custody.
In a country with discriminatory law-enforcement practices, and too few people engaged in their civic duty to vote, New Jersey has no good reason to deny people on probation and parole their right to vote. But it has every reason to encourage voting among this population.
Allowing probationers and parolees the right to vote teaches responsibility, gives people a sense of belonging and contribution, and encourages participation in a civic responsibility in which too few engage. Also, it can help counteract the devastating consequences of discrimination in the criminal justice system that burdens generations of minorities.
-By Deborah Jacobs ACLU-NJ Executive Director and, Frank Askin Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic Director