We cannot fear democracy

Dear Editor:

I fully support Senators Cunningham and Rice in their quest to restore the vote to all otherwise qualified prisoners, probationers and parolees in New Jersey. This legislation puts New Jersey in the same league as Vermont, Maine and Puerto Rico; in the same world as South Africa, Canada and Israel; and in the same environment as those of us who insist that citizenship’s most basic badge, honor and responsibility – the right to vote – is not withheld simply because of a criminal conviction, whether the citizen is incarcerated in East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, on parole in Paterson, or on probation in Jersey City. Vermont, Maine and Puerto Rico here allow citizens to vote from their prison cells and in Puerto Rico, where that right is jealously protected, they vote actively and strategically.

Within criminology, incarceration serves the values of incapacitation, deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation. Parsimony should be an essential element of criminal law because sentencing should provide an appropriate amount of incarceration, and no more. The sentence should fit the crime and the collateral consequences of the sentence – consequences that outlive it – should be questioned at every turn.

As a member of America’s voting rights bar for decades – I have litigated Voting Rights Act cases since 1981 – I submit that the deprivation of a citizen’s right to vote while incarcerated does not serve the principles of incapacitation, deterrence, nor rehabilitation. Indeed, some polling data has linked voting to reductions in recidivism rates among formerly incarcerated citizens. In other words, political engagement and voting may serve to enhance the rehabilitation of New Jersey’s prisoners and former prisoners. So at best, removing the vote from New Jersey’s prisoners is punishment, plain and simple. And I would think that New Jersey, as the rest of the country, has punished enough.

Senator Cunningham seeks to a return to full democracy in New Jersey. It corrects a sad, historic chapter in New Jersey’s history that begins in 1844 where suffrage for whites only and disfranchisement for persons with criminal convictions were linked for reasons that the state would not tolerate today.

But as important as the racial issues raised today and in 1844 are for New Jersey I leave the reader with basic questions: What exactly are we afraid of if we restore the right to vote and S-2100 passes into law? That more eligible citizens would actually vote? That prisoners and former prisoners would find voice and agency in the ballot box? If that were to happen, we should applaud it because we cannot fear democracy. Not in New Jersey. Not in America.

Juan Cartagena