TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Wayne R. Bryant which would allow people on parole and probation who are convicted of low-level indictable offenses to vote was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee today.
“In New Jersey, there has been a steady movement to increase the status of once-minor violations to indictable offenses,” said Senator Bryant, D-Camden and Gloucester. “While I do not have a problem with being tough on crime, indictable offenses also carry the additional punishment of disenfranchisement, which essentially results in banishment from participation in our great democracy. We need to ask ourselves at what point are these penalties too much.”
The bill, S-2215, as amended, would require that when disorderly persons’ offenses are elevated to crimes of the fourth degree in the future, a person would lose the right to vote during parole or probation only if the disenfranchisement is specifically written into the bill. Currently, fourth degree crimes include: criminal mischief, certain minor assaults, and some minor cases of shoplifting. Under Senator Bryant’s bill, someone convicted of a fourth degree crime would still not be able to vote while in prison, and this bill would only apply to minor crimes, and not crimes of the third, second and first degree.
Senator Bryant added that disenfranchisement disproportionately affects minorities over whites. According to the Senator, 62 percent of those who are denied the right to vote are African-American or Hispanic, though they make up only 27 percent of New Jersey’s overall population.
“In Iraq this past weekend, we empowered a group of people who have historically been denied the ability to choose who and how they are governed,” said Senator Bryant. “Meanwhile, in the United States, thousands of people are denied similar rights, but society turns a blind eye to their plight. We need to reexamine the penalties applied to minor criminal offenses, because essentially what we’re saying now is that for a one-time mistake, a person can be denied a voice in our society for a very long time.”
Originally, the bill would have given all parolees and probationers convicted of a fourth degree crime the right to vote. However, Senator Bryant agreed to the amendments to move his bill forward and put greater attention on the disenfranchisement of fourth-degree offenders. The Senator, however, added that he would like to see the Legislature reexamine which crimes are currently carrying a penalty of disenfranchisement, because he believes many offenses which are currently considered as fourth degree crimes are carrying a far greater penalty than the Legislature ever intended.
The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.