Menendez, Sweeney, and Coughlin highlight NJ Together’s social justice discussion

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New Jersey Together was joined by a number of guests for a social justice Zoom discussion last night highlighted by U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19).

By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View

“Our state is calling out for change,” said Rev. Robert Rogers of Morris County. He explained that New Jersey Together seeks to enact reforms to address criminal justice and structural racism.

Menendez, who committed to meeting with NJ Together leaders, applauded the organization for all they’ve been able to accomplish during this chaotic year so far.

“I appreciate all the work that you are all doing to promote sensible criminal justice reforms, to protect affordable housing, and testing for COVID-19 here in our state. Indeed, many of the issues that you champion at the state and local levels are the ones that I fight for each and every day at the United State Senate.”

Rev. Willard Ashley, of the Abundant Joy Community Church in Jersey City, said New Jersey consistently ranks as one of the most unjust state, noting that the Garden State has the highest racial disparities in its state prisons in the nations.

“African Americans are 12 times more likely to be in state prison than white people,” he said, later adding that New Jersey us one of the top states where police-involved shootings have occurred, as well as that white wealth is approximately 50 times greater than black and latino wealth.

Additionally, Bishop Dr. Joshua Rodriguez, of the Cityline Church in Jersey City, asked if Sweeney could be counted to meet with the advocacy group to discuss these issues and more.

“Of course I would, I would be happy to meet and discuss a lot of issues that are troubling this state. The things I’ve heard, we all know are true. Since its inception, our criminal justice system has been marked by racial bias and discrepancies,” he responded.

“To this day, black and brown communities are policed more heavily, stopped more frequently, imprisoned more often, sentenced more severely and we’ve seen more likely to be killed in non-threatening situations.”

In recent years, Sweeney said the state senate has taken up several criminal justice reform issues, including ending cash bail and a bill that allows the appointment of an independent prosecutor to review fatal shootings.

He also noted he worked with state Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-31) on the marijuana expungement bill, even though cannabis is still illegal and fueling arrests.

She was scheduled to join the forum, but was pulled ultimately not able to participate.

Furthermore, the senate president credited State Senator Shirley Turner (D-15) is working on a driver’s license suspension reform bill, while former Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) has been working hard on recidivism – especially in Jersey City.

He indicated that the senate is committed to seeing issues like these though.

As far as driver’s license suspensions go, Assemblyman Nick Chiaravalloti (D-31) is working to introduce a companion bill in the lower house.

“You can go from having a ticket, to thousands of dollars of fines, to a bench warrant for your arrest,” he explained.

Continuing along those lines, Rev. Mona Fitch-Elliot, of St. John’s Luther Church in Jersey City, explained the negative ramifications of license suspensions.

She said license suspension often results from missing a court date and things typically spiral out of control from there.

Additionally, community activist Frank “Educational” Gilmore spoke on a video featuring those adversely impacted by a license suspension.

He described being pulled over by a state trooper when he was younger, to ultimate find out there was a warrant out for his arrest due to parking tickets.

According to Fitch-Elliot, 300,000 people have suspended licenses simply for failure to appear. She noted they are working with the conservative Americans for Prosperity since this is a bipartisan issue.

Uche Akpa, of the Fountain of Salvation Church in Jersey City, said NJ Together is pressing state officials to create a fund to help struggling families buy homes to create wealth.

Akpa also noted organizations similar to New Jersey Together created comparable programs in East Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Baltimore.

“The people of Bergen-Lafayette find themselves pushed out or pressured to sell,” Akpa said. “Currently, those looking to buy are being priced out. We are seeing the same thing play out … throughout New Jersey.”

Coughlin also agreed to meet with NJ Together soon, noting that 26 bills social justice bills have recently passed the Assembly.

“I’m really proud of the work we have done in the assembly in these last couple of months … In New Jersey, we all recognize that losing your right to drive is like losing your job and so many other aspects of your life,” the assembly speaker stated.

” … I had the privilege of being a prosecutor in Wood-Bridge Municipal Court, in Edison Municipal Court, for about 15 years and a municipal court judge for four: I’ve seen the kind of impact by things like parking, I hate it – I truly did. I hated suspensions based on parking tickets.”

Near the end of the call, Rev. Dr. Alonzo Perry, Sr., of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, said now is the time to come together and get to work.

“Will all of you lead with us?” Perry asked rhetorically. “If we’re going to move these issues forward, we need to go to work now.”