“Attempts to Revive the Death Penalty in New Jersey” by Tariq MaQbool

On December 17, 2007, the state of New Jersey outlawed the Death Penalty. As a result, all prisoners in New Jersey State Prison’s (NJSP) “Death Row” had their sentences changed to Life in prison with 30 years intelligibility of parole. The change in New Jersey, which according to its own New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission’s Reports (NJCSDC 2019 & 2022), has the worst racial disparity in its prison population in the nation, was hailed by human rights groups, the Catholic Church, and others who had called for reforming the state’s sentencing system. However, since the sanction on Death Penalty, a substantial percentage of the state legislature has refused to accept the ban and have actively worked to reinstating it back into law.

One such attempt was in 2007 by Ronald S. Dancer from Burlington County’s District 12, where he introduced ACR86, the “Respect for the majority of New Jersey Voters Amendment.” At the time, in support of his proposed measure, Mr. Dancer cited that nearly 75% of the New Jersey voters actually supported the death penalty. The measure would eventually fail but the movement to reinstate did not end.

Recently, the same 75% in support statistic was cited by Reps. Parker Space and Hal J. Wirths of District 24, Morris, Sussex, and Warren counties, as they introduced their Bill A245 (Legiscan.com) to reinstate the death penalty. In addition, State Senator Steven V. Oroho, also of the same District 24, introduced his own Bill S1672 (Legiscan.com) to the New Jersey State Judiciary Committee.

Since the 2007 ban, a loud minority in the state Republican Party has sought to find ways to bring back the death penalty and to further enhance sentences for crimes. In large part, with the exception of the death penalty, the Republicans have found working partners and supporters from the other side of the aisle. Consequently, the sentencing schemes in New Jersey have steadily become one of the harshest in the country. Moreover, the proponents of “tougher on crime” laws have found even louder support from the local conservative media that has consistently argued for the death penalty and its actual imposition to give teeth to their deterrent arguments.

In this social media era, where examples of police brutality and stories of mistreatment of incarcerated men and women are abound, there has been some movements around the nation towards reforms. However, unlike other states that are trying to restructure their sentencing and policing policies, New Jersey, a so-called “Progressive” State, has woefully lagged behind. And in contradistinction, in New Jersey the heavy hand of the law seems to get heavier even in light of the glaring inequities highlighted by the State’s own NJCSDC reports, and the recent abuse scandals at the Edna Mahan and other state penitentiaries.

More importantly, even the relied upon statistical data from 2007 has changed with the passage of time. And Mr. Dancer’s “Respect for the Majority of New Jersey Voters Amendment” seems a misnomer, as the support for the death penalty has dropped by approximately 25% since the polling in 2007. However, that change of attitude within the New Jersey voters seems to be irrelevant to the present sponsors of the death penalty as they conveniently cite the old statistical data to argue for their bills.

They also ignore the data in the recent NJCSDC (2019-2022) reports pertaining to Black citizens making up 14% of the state population yet accounting for 61% of the state’s prison population. And the shameful public admittance by the Commission that New Jersey has a “long and complicated history” of racial bias and that a “fair justice system cannot tolerate such disparity.”

At the end, with the current construct of the New Jersey legislature and the Governorship, the measure is a moot one. Yet, the audaciousness of the proponents of the death penalty in New Jersey during the present times in American social movement, where there is a loud call to reforming policing, judicial, prison, and sentencing policies is quite an eye opener.