ACLU REPORT HIGHLIGHTS FORFEITURE FLAWS

A new report from the New Jersey affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union takes a good, hard look at civil asset forfeiture and concludes that it is prone to widespread abuse and disproportionately used against people of color.

Civil asset forfeiture, also known as civil forfeiture, and sometimes disparagingly referred to as “policing for profit” is a legal process by which law enforcement officers take people’s property away from them on mere suspicion of a crime without necessarily arresting them or bringing charges. The statutes that govern it are N.J.S.A. 2C:64-1 et seq.

The textbook case of civil forfeiture is the seizure of illegal narcotics from suspected drug dealers, as well as cash believed to have been used in or earned from narcotics transactions.

But forfeiture can involve a wide range of assets, many of which are far more innocuous. Cars, boats, houses, jewelry, art, electronics – just about anything can be seized. The report lists baseball cards, a bicycle, an iPod, shoes and laptops, among other items. Continue reading ACLU REPORT HIGHLIGHTS FORFEITURE FLAWS

NEW JERSEY APPLESEED STATEMENT ON PROPOSED REDISTRICTING AMENDMENT

New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center today issued the following statement on the proposed constitutional amendment now pending before the Legislature (SCR152 and ACR205) that deals with how state legislative districts are drawn.

After a careful analysis of the pending proposals to alter the State’s reapportionment commission, New Jersey Appleseed has concluded that the proposal would be marginally more harmful than the status quo to the public interest, and to the interest of New Jersey voters. Nonetheless, for reasons more fully stated below, New Jersey Appleseed urges that the current proposal be rejected and that the Assembly and Senate should remand apportionment reform to an appropriate committee, for the establishment of a significantly new system that involves the creation of a citizen-based or nonpartisan commission.

The current method by which both redistricting and reapportionment are performed in New Jersey is at best characterized as minimally acceptable, but short of a just and fair system to which voters are entitled.

As it has operated to date, one political party insider from each of the two major political parties appoints other political party insiders to the reapportionment commission.  In the last reapportionment commission, in 2011, seven of the eleven members were sitting legislators.  Although the overwhelming presence of sitting legislators who have a self-interest in how districts are drawn is problematic, the current system has some protection against excesses.  Namely, because the maps proffered by each political party’s appointees must earn the support of a nonpartisan member appointed by the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, the map drafters are thereby deterred from offering outrageously gerrymandered maps as some other states have witnessed.  The results of this process in the past have been minimally acceptable, but they have still fallen far short of what is obtainable as a matter of fairness and justice.

New Jersey Appleseed does not find that greater diffusion in who chooses reapportionment commission members is intrinsically bad policy.   We do find it problematic, however, that the current proposal would result in the appointing authorities remaining, as is true under the current system, political insiders with a vested interest in the outcome of the map.

Nor do we find the mandate of a minimum number of competitive districts to be intrinsically flawed.  On the contrary, promoting competitive districts is a legitimate factor for the creation of responsible redistricting and reapportionment plans.  The problem with the proposed redistricting amendment is that, for the remaining districts – those not deemed to be competitive, there is no meaningful protection against them being “packed” and “cracked” in a way that would create a legislative map that is unjust – not just to political parties – but more importantly, to voters.

New Jersey can confidently look to other states that have created redistricting and reapportionment commissions that draw on experienced professionals, yet seek to minimize (though not eliminate) the role of self-interested legislators and political party insiders in the creation of maps.

While these other methods, sometimes called “citizen-based” or “nonpartisan” commissions, vary in their specifics, what they have in common is they rightly grant political parties and officeholders a full opportunity to be heard in regard to map-drawing.  However, they also ensure that legislators and legislative leadership do not serve as, nor do they appoint, a majority of the committee that actually draws the maps. Among others, California, Colorado, and Iowa all have responsible processes that minimize the influence of political party insiders, either as members of redistricting commissions, or with the responsibility of directly appointing members of these commissions.  These states’ processes provide useful templates from which New Jersey voters could obtain redistricting and reapportionment processes that have the public interest at heart, rather than the self-interest that is promoted by both the current system and the pending amendment proposals.

New Jersey Appleseed therefore urges that SCR152 and ACR205 be rejected, and the matter remanded to the appropriate Senate and Assembly Committee for a proposal that creates a citizen-based, rather than a party-based, redistricting and reapportionment system.

The above statement was prepared by New Jersey Appleseed Executive Director Renée Steinhagen and board member Flavio Komuves.

SUCCESS IN NJ PUSHBACK ON EFFORTS TO DESTROY ACA

Here is a bit of great news I am happy to share.

New Jersey, whose individual health insurance market was one of the nation’s most expensive a few years ago will be one of the cheapest in 2019, according to a recent report from New Jersey Policy Perspective.  We have fallen from paying the ninth highest premiums in 2014 to 47th highest in 2019.  Indiana ($339), Massachusetts ($332) and Minnesota ($326) will be the only states paying less than New Jersey’s $352 per month.

That compares with a national average of $477 and neighboring state averages of  $684, $569, and $484, in Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania, respectively.

The numbers are from Kaiser Family Foundation data tracking premium costs in every state from 2014 to 2019. During that period, New Jersey premiums rose from $323 in 2014 to a high of $413 last year.

For a family of four opting for the least costly silver plan, that translates to an annual savings of $3,264 (from $15,132 down to $11,868). Comparable figures for a 60 year old are a $1,944 drop (from $10,152 to $8,208) and for a 27 year old, a $792 decrease (from  $3,912 to $3,120).

The price drop is all the more surprising and welcome in the face of ongoing efforts by the Trump Administration and the GOP-led Congress to dismantle and undermine the Affordable Care Act. Their efforts have included repeal of the individual mandate, discontinuation of certain subsidies, shortened enrollment periods, and other actions that have created uncertainty in the market that has itself driven up the cost of policies.

New Jersey has pushed back in various ways, including enacting laws that created a state mandate and established a reinsurance program and the launch of a Get Covered campaign. It is working!

We are now more than halfway through the sign-up period which began on November 1 and ends December 15. If you obtain your healthcare through the individual market, DO NOT DELAY. And make sure others do not either, by spreading the word.

Read the New Jersey Policy Perspective article on the falling premiums here.

LET’S DO IT RIGHT ON NEW VOTING MACHINES

Two New Jersey towns at opposite ends of the state–Westfield, in Union County, and National Park, in Gloucester–tried out new voting machines on Election Day last week.

Both towns were part of a state pilot program paid for with federal HAVA (Help America Vote Act) Election Security Grants. New Jersey which received roughly $10 million of the $380 million national total, allocated $2.5 million for the pilot, plus another $250,000 for a related pilot to audit the votes cast on the new machines. Continue reading LET’S DO IT RIGHT ON NEW VOTING MACHINES

NEW JERSEY VOTES STILL HACKABLE

Election Day is upon us again and it is one that many of us view as crucial to saving our democracy, as we mobilize to flip control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate too, so we can thwart the destructive policies of Donald Trump.

The day after last year’s election, I wrote a blog post about the vulnerability of New Jersey’s  voting machines. I am sorry to say that, although some small steps have been taken since then, our votes are still at risk, despite mounting evidence that they are not secure and that Russia hacked some states’ election systems in 2016.

New Jersey remains one of a handful of states where the validity of election results cannot be confirmed because the votes are recorded electronically and lack a verifiable paper trail.  Continue reading NEW JERSEY VOTES STILL HACKABLE

HEALTH CARE IS AT STAKE THIS ELECTION DAY

As we approach the November 6 election date, here is something to help you focus on what is at stake.

If Republican majorities survive in both houses of Congress, there is a real possibility  that they will repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka ACA aka Obamacare). The last major effort at repeal fell short because of a dramatic “no” vote from Senator John McCain, whose death in August means he is no longer around to save the day

Republicans would likely be emboldened to try again if they hold onto power in one or both houses of Congress and if they succeed, it would strip health care from an estimated 800,000 New Jersey residents, according to a report released today by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank focused on issues that impact this state.

Most of those would be the roughly half million people who benefited from New Jersey’s expansion of Medicaid under the ACA, with the rest consisting of those who bought policies on the individual market.

In addition, the elimination of the ACA’s protections for people with preexisting conditions would impact more than 3.8 million people, about 43% of New Jersey residents, says the report.

And the nearly 700,000 people who still lack health insurance would probably lose any hope of obtaining it.

Further, proposed cutbacks in Medicare to pay for last year’s tax cuts would put health coverage at risk for 1.5 million more New Jerseyans.

Read the report and get out there next Tuesday to protect health care!

MEASURE WILL HELP PLUG RETIREMENT SAVINGS “GAP”

State legislation to create a retirement savings program for private sector workers took a step forward last week.

On October 15, the New Jersey Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee approved A-4134, the Secure Choice Savings Program Act, by a vote of  8-to-3, with 2 committee members not voting.

We all know that Social Security, as helpful and necessary as it is, is not enough for seniors to live on. According to figures from AARP (formerly American Association of Retired Persons), the average monthly Social Security retirement benefit in New Jersey is $1,377/month. Just try living on that in this state, where the average monthly rental for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,199 per month, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. With utilities, food, clothing, medical expenses and other expenses, the math simply does not add up.  Continue reading MEASURE WILL HELP PLUG RETIREMENT SAVINGS “GAP”

DIFFERENT RULINGS ON ACCESS TO POLICE RECORDINGS

People, like me, who believe in open government, were sorely disappointed last month when the state’s highest court, usually so protective of transparency, denied access to police dash-cam recordings under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

On August 13, 2018, a sharply divided New Jersey Supreme Court held, 4-3, in Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, that such recordings were not subject to disclosure under OPRA because they were not “required by law” to be made and constituted criminal investigatory records deemed confidential under OPRA.

Just 11 days later, however, a different New Jersey court determined that the same criminal investigatory exemption did not apply to police body cams. Continue reading DIFFERENT RULINGS ON ACCESS TO POLICE RECORDINGS

LEGISLATION WOULD PROTECT PATIENTS FROM DEBT COLLECTORS

New Jersey residents faced with medical bills they cannot afford to pay would obtain some respite under newly proposed legislation.

A-4335, would require  medical providers to wait at least 90 days after the initial billing date before they sic a debt collector or lawyer on a patient.

Continue reading LEGISLATION WOULD PROTECT PATIENTS FROM DEBT COLLECTORS

Historic Move by Baltimore to Safeguard its Water System

New Jersey is not the only place where communities are struggling to keep essential public water resources out of private hands.

On August 6, the Baltimore City Council unanimously approved a resolution, Bill 18-0271, to amend the city charter to prohibit the sale or lease of its water system. The amendment would declare the “inalienability” of sewer and water-supply systems and exempt those systems, and their “operations and uses” from charter provisions that otherwise authorize the “grant of franchises or rights relating to the operation or use of public property.”

Continue reading Historic Move by Baltimore to Safeguard its Water System