TRENTON — A Senate committee heard testimony for two hours Thursday on the idea of allowing people serving criminal sentences to vote in New Jersey for the first time in 175 years.

Not a single person spoke against the idea.

Mryna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Project, said polls her group did in conjunction with a push to allow former inmates to vote in Florida consistently find support for restoring voting rights.

“Americans of all political stripes believe in second chances, including and especially when it comes to the right to vote,” Pérez said.

“What are we afraid of? That eligible citizens will actually vote?” asked Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “That prisoners and former prisoners will find voice and agency in the ballot box? If that were to happen, we should be applauding it because we cannot fear democracy.”

Roughly 94,000 people in New Jersey are denied to right to vote because they are in prison, on probation or on parole. Gov. Phil Murphy supports restoring that right during probation and parole, though hasn’t said he supports it for incarcerated inmates.

Dianna Houenou, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said inmates are not significantly different from people not in prison.

“They are affected just as much as if not more than people outside of prison walls by the decisions that are being made by policy-makers,” Houenou said.

Ryan Haygood, president of the chief executive officer of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said restoring voting rights to only those on probation and parole would actually make the racial disparity in voter disenfranchisement worse than what exists now.

“There’s no legitimate public safety or criminal justice purpose served by doing so,” Haygood said.

Retired state trooper Dominic Bucci of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership says research shows civic engagement reduces recidivism.

“Denying people the right to vote has no basis in public safety,” Bucci said.

The Senate state government scheduled a hearing on the bills but had indicated ahead of time it didn’t plan a vote Thursday.

In addition to civil rights activists, the panel heard from a number of former inmates, some of them still on parole, a few of whom had been convicted of murder.

Dameon Stackhouse, a Rutgers University student who served over a decade in prison for robbery, said people serving criminal sentences shouldn’t be denied the right to vote the way illegal immigrants are.

“We are not the same. We are citizens of this United States,” Stackhouse said. “It’s not about black or white. It’s not about red or blue. It’s about citizens. We are citizens.”


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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