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Opinion: King’s vision offers a way forward on criminal justice reform

Cunningham Void centered

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Dr. King saw the injustices that were happening to his family, his neighbors, the members of his community and congregation, and to so many others in our country. He did not stay silent. He helped lead one of the most important social movements in the history of our country. For all the successes that the Civil Rights Movement brought, major issues still linger in our society. Racial and economic inequality run rampant throughout our country and we need to continue to fight the injustices that Dr. King fought against for so long.

The mass incarceration of minorities in the United States is the new Jim Crow of the 21st Century. New Jersey spends $45,000 per inmate, and yet does not use enough of that money to help prisoners readjust into society when their sentence ends. I sponsored the “Earn Your Way Out Act,” which would require the Department of Corrections to develop a reentry plan for each inmate, establish administrative parole release for certain inmates, and create an inmate disciplinary database. The cost of re-incarceration far exceeds the investment we would need to make to prepare inmates for a productive life beyond prison.

Providing educational opportunity to inmates, particularly the disproportionately high percentage of African-American and Hispanics trapped in the criminal justice system, is an essential part of continuing the fight for freedom that Dr. King led. As chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, I sponsored a bill that would permit anyone incarcerated to receive student financial aid.

Higher education is one of the most powerful deterrents to crime and recidivism, and the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty. According to the recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice, more than a third of the prison population in New Jersey would benefit from receiving Pell Grants, federal college aid for low-incomes students, if they were made available. The report found that by allowing prisoners to receive aid for college courses, states would save money and boost the economy, and recidivism rates would decrease.

The most important piece of legislation I have worked on in the Senate is the expungement of criminal records. This bill would establish a “clean slate” for anyone with disorderly and petty offenses to receive automatic expungement 10 years after the end of the most recent conviction. For many Americans, a criminal conviction creates a life-long handicap. This hinders their ability to find a job, rent an apartment or serve in our military. Expanding the scope of expungement will remove these barriers for individuals who are deserving of a second chance.

Then there is the right to vote, one of the most important rights we have and a continuing struggle to which Dr. King devoted his life. People are praising Florida voters for passing a ballot initiative that restored voting rights to former nonviolent prisoners. New Jersey has had a similar law in place for a long time, but I want to take that one step further. I sponsored a bill that would allow non-violent offenders on parole and probation to vote, and provide registration assistance to those on probation and parole. They served their time; they should not have an extra step to take when it comes to being able to vote.

We also need to ensure that justice is applied equally, which is why I co-sponsored legislation authored by Senate President Sweeney to require the Attorney General’s Office to conduct an independent investigation into police shootings and other law enforcement-involved fatalities — to ensure the integrity and credibility of the criminal justice system. This bill, awaiting the governor’s signature, would require that evidence be presented to a state or county grand jury outside the county where the death occurred to ensure that justice is served.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated his life to making the lives of every American better. He worked to stem the hate he and so many others endured; he fought for rights, freedom and equality. Unfortunately, his dream is still in the works. We still fight the same fights he fought. We all need to fight to make Dr. King’s dream a reality.

Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, serves as Deputy Majority Leader of the New Jersey Senate and chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.

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