Let Convicts Vote? Report Offers Ways to Improve NJ Prison System
In the last in a series of seven Crossroads NJ reports making recommendations to the next governor, the Fund for New Jersey suggests criminal-justice changes aimed at reducing the size of the state’s prison population.
Though the number of inmates in New Jersey prisons is at its lowest level since 1999, the state still jails people at rates higher than all but six nations and has the biggest racial disparities in the nation, said Lawrence Lustberg, who heads the criminal defense department of the Gibbons P.C. law firm.
“The reason the public should be interested in this is because we are spending millions, billions of dollars incarcerating people who whether for purposes of punishment or rehabilitation or deterrence or incapacitation should not be incarcerated,” Lustberg said.
“It is costing of all us every single day, and it is deflecting resources from ways that government could much better spend them,” he said.
Among other things, the report recommends focusing police on public safety, in part by legalizing marijuana; eliminating mandatory minimum sentences; and expanding inmates’ opportunities to earn early release from prison.
The report says three-quarters of the roughly 20,000 state prison inmates are serving mandatory minimum sentences. Lustberg said punishment is one of four goals of sentencing people convicted of crimes, along with deterring other crime, incapacitating people who would otherwise be dangerous and rehabilitating people.
“A rational and careful balancing of those four factors would indicate that many of the sentences that are imposed are sentences that are far too long,” Lustberg said.
In addition to reducing the number of inmates, the report suggests allowing them to vote while incarcerated. Currently in New Jersey, no one in prison, on parole or on probation can vote, but former inmates can regain that right.
“There’s no reason why necessarily because you’re convicted of a crime, you should forfeit the right to participate in society as a citizen,” Lustberg said. “You’re still a citizen, even if you’re in prison.”
Maine and Vermont allow inmates to vote. On the other end of the spectrum, 12 states never allow convicted offenders to vote again.
Though the report is about criminal justice, not immigration, and does not mention the phrase "sanctuary cities" except in a footnote, it recommends changes the state could consider if its leaders want to shield people from deportation despite a brush with the law.
That has become an issue in the gubernatorial race, with Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno sharply criticizing Democratic nominee Phil Murphy for saying he’d make New Jersey a ‘sanctuary state’ for some immigrants in the country illegally.
Lustberg said he has seen people in the country legally with green cards get deported for offenses as minor as turnstile jumping.
“We need to have an immigration system that’s rational and deports dangerous criminals but not people who commit technical violations of the law or the sorts of things that anybody can, you know, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ type offenses,” Lustberg said.
The report recommends reversing a 2007 directive requiring police to ask about the immigration status of people they arrest, reclassifying some crimes so deportation isn’t a consequence and creating an advisory board to recommend pardons to spare immigrants from deportation.