ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Speaking before the New Jersey General Assembly in Trenton on Nov. 25, Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris) called upon his fellow legislators to consider a particular idiom ahead of a vote on a bill to restore voting rights to people on parole and probation upon release.
“There is a reason why we have a saying in our language that is used to denote something that’s absurd. We say: ‘The inmates are running the asylum,’” Webber said. “This bill literally allows the inmates to run the asylum.”
However, Ron Pierce, a Justice & Democracy fellow with the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and his colleagues see things a bit differently.
“The way his system is, I made $3.50 a day running the recreation department. You have a head chef running the kitchen. So while we don’t have a vote, and we’re making just beyond slave wages, basically we are running it — there’s just staff to oversee,” said Pierce, who graduated from Rutgers-Newark with a degree in justice studies through the New Jersey Transformative Education in Prisons program.
After more than 30 years of not voting due to being incarcerated for murder and paroled, the voting rights advocate is on the precipice of being able to vote again in 2020 following a 46-23-1 vote in favor of bill A-5823 in the state assembly. The bill is sponsored by Democrats Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), Cleopatra Tucker of D-Essex, Jamel Holley (D-Union) and Britnee Timberlake of (D-Essex).
“If what [Webber] meant is that people affected by the criminal justice system will now have a say in their democracy and laws that affect them, their families and their communities, we couldn't agree more. That's the point,” echoed Henal Patel, associate counsel for NJISJ, which is spearheading the statewide voting rights restoration campaign #1844NoMore. The campaign is named for the year New Jersey both revoked the voting rights of people with criminal convictions and restricted the vote to white men.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s anticipated final approval of A-5823 would make New Jersey the 20th state to allow people on probation and parole to vote.
In his work with NJISJ and A-5823’s legislative sponsors, Pierce has established himself as a force for change. For him, restoring the right to vote for people with criminal convictions is more a matter of humanity than it is a circumvention of crime and punishment, as the bill’s opponents allege.
Recalling the day in Trenton State Prison that he received the letter informing him his voting rights had been rescinded, he mulled over the ways in which the collateral consequence is an act of systemic and continued disenfranchisement. He said his father instilled in him a sense of civic duty and an obligation to his community that has stayed with him as he simultaneously drives forward and awaits a historic legislative decision.
“It was at that moment that I kind of heard my father’s voice talking about the community responsibility that I had, and how now I was disconnected from it,” Pierce said. “My father was very socially conscious and politically conscious, he instilled in us that we had to be part of the community and give back. He also believed very strongly in not only voting but in understanding what the community’s needs are.”
That disconnect, as Pierce recalls it, disproportionately affects black people, which make up more than half of the overall 102,000 people in New Jersey who can’t vote due to conviction. According to Pierce, losing the right to vote is a barrier to re-entry that weighs heavily on those with convictions and their communities, whose needs are effectively silenced.
A political science class Pierce took while in prison demonstrated that many black inmates arrive at prison feeling politically inert and marginalized. Behind bars, he said that time and the political atmosphere of prison create a personal transformation that enlightens social consciousness, giving way to what would be informed voters. But without the right to vote, that enlightenment cannot be released or create change, perpetuating a cycle of recidivism for individuals and underrepresentation for their communities.
“It was there that I decided that was the most important aspect — the most fundamental collateral consequence that is the opening for all other collateral consequences, like housing and education problems, job opportunities — falls under the fact that no one has to listen to you because you can’t do anything for them,” Peirce said.
While more than 80,000 people on probation and parole stand to regain the right to vote as the bill reaches the end of its legislative journey, the work is hardly over. In conjunction with A-5823, which Pierce and his colleagues expect to pass into law, NJISJ is working on extending the vote to 19,000 people who are actively incarcerated.
New Jersey’s black prison population has risen to more than 62 percent, and according to Pierce, that number is inflating. To that effect, A-5823 is also an essential tool in healing New Jersey’s racial disparities and the issues that compound them. In Pierce, who shares in the many collateral consequences of criminal conviction, these issues find a human face to champion their solutions through research and staunch advocacy.
“Ron is a husband, a veteran, a college graduate, and a fierce advocate for social justice and the right to vote. When people talk to him, they understand that we are talking about real human beings whose voices have been silenced,” Patel commented. “Due to his own experience, Ron understands on a visceral level how the right to vote can help with rehabilitation and re-entry into society by forging a connection with community — how the vote, as he says, has ‘value to the soul,’ and should not be tied to the criminal justice system.”
Pierce, looking back on his life before his 1986 conviction, reflects fondly upon his family’s voting-day tradition of coffee, donuts and spirited debate at his childhood home before everyone cast their ballots. But for right now, he’s not making celebration plans for the day he regains his right to participate in elections.
“I don’t really know what I’ll do the day it passes, I really don’t. I’m so focused on how close it's coming, and I’m scared to look too far into the future and jinx it,” he said.
Instead, Pierce said he will continue doing what he does best: helping the people understand what the right to vote means to someone who can’t.