By Senator Ronald L. Rice
The goal of the criminal justice system is to give offenders a second chance – an opportunity to make amends for their mistakes and move on. We need to believe that offenders can be rehabilitated and transformed from criminals to productive members of society.
Unfortunately, there is still one thing that keeps ex-convicts from fully participating in society— their uncertainty about their eligibility to vote. Former offenders do not always realize that their voting rights are restored after they have finished all jail, probation and parole sentences.
Voting is extremely important because it provides a citizen with an opportunity to make a difference in their own lives. Individuals can influence government decision-making through voting. The act of voting is the single greatest thing an individual can do to take part in their government and make their voices heard on important policy decisions.
However, today, too many people do not understand or exercise their voting rights, and as a result, entire segments of our population— and especially formerly incarcerated individuals — are being underrepresented at the polls on election day.
If we are going to be serious about the rehabilitation of criminal offenders, then we need to reintegrate them into every possible aspect of society to which they are entitled. Getting the right to vote restored would enable people to take advantage of the opportunity to make their voices heard.
For most citizens, there is a lot at stake in this election year. It’s important that the public, including those who have been incarcerated, know their voting eligibility rights, and register before the October 14 deadline.
Everyone should know the facts about voting in New Jersey. To be eligible to vote:
• A person must register with election officials at least 21 days before the election.
• A person must also be a United States citizen, at least 18 years old by the next election, and live in the county for at least 30 days before the election.
• A person currently in jail, on probation or parole CAN NOT vote.
• When you finish with your jail, probation and parole, you CAN once again vote.
• A person CAN vote if he or she is a pre-trial detainee or free on bail pending an appeal.
When someone is convicted, his or her voter registration gets deleted from the rolls of registered voters. Many former offenders don’t realize that if a person was registered to vote before conviction, that person must re-register once the sentence has been served.
Every eligible citizen should be registered to vote. Registering is easier than ever. Most government buildings have voter registration forms that you can fill out and turn in right there, including Motor Vehicle Commission offices, libraries, schools and even local parole offices.
The Department of Corrections Office of Transitional Services is doing their part as well. They have continued to make sure that any inmate who is finishing out their sentence and is no longer under probation or parole receives a “get your vote back kit.” The most recent report indicates that a total of 244 kits were distributed in the month of August 2008 alone.
This is an important election year and I want to encourage every citizen, regardless of the mistakes they have made in the past, to register before the October 14th deadline.
Remember, citizens who have completed their jail sentences, terms of probation or parole; or are awaiting trial or have been convicted of a non-indictable crime CAN vote in New Jersey. I want the residents of this State to show up at their local polling places between 6 am and 8 pm on November 4, and let their choices be counted and their voices be heard.