How did New Jersey get where they are now?

New Jersey’s state legislature is on the verge of replacing the death penalty with life without parole. From the outside, it may seem like a simple act of a liberal state, but those of us acquainted with the organizers on the ground in New Jersey know that this is the result of years of old-fashioned grassroots-style hard work.

Lorry Post, New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty founder, recounted how he began his work on the death penalty after he and members of his church began following the Florida death row case of Pedro Medina, who many believe was innocent. From that early work, Post decided to begin a organization focused on New Jersey’s death penalty system. NJADP quickly grew through regularly speaking at churches “and anyplace else we were asked,” Lorry said.

Abe Bonowitz joined the New Jersey team in 2006. “My main task was to help build our membership in key legislative districts and we did that by following the same old recipe – giving talks in churches and schools and with community groups. We did a tour with death row exoneree Juan Melendez and murder victim family member Vicki Schieber, but most of the time it was just me and one of our local exonerees or victim family members. We did our talk, and we signed people up, and it did not matter if it was five people or fifty, we just looked for opportunities and made the most of every one of them.”

New Jersey organizers kicked off their campaign in the early years by employing EJUSA’s Moratorium Now! strategy, asking organizations, churches, city councils, and other groups to pass resolutions calling for a moratorium. After the campaign moved from moratorium to abolition, they went back to all those groups and got the same support for abolition. That way when New Jersey organizers went to meetings with legislators, they were able to bring a long list of supporting groups in the state.

NJADP maximized the value of their outreach by keeping careful records of their supporters and activists. Organizers and volunteers made notations in their database for where each supporter signed up, what contacts they had, and any other information that might be helpful later on.

“Since labor Day we’ve been activating the people we spent years educating and preparing for this moment,” Abe said. “Now that we’ve been in the final weeks of a years-long campaign, it is those personal connections that help us motivate regular citizens to contact their legislators over and over again.”

And the work has payed off. In last week’s Senate Budget Committee hearing, one senator who long supported the death penalty stated that the many communications he’d received from his constituents was a key factor in his decision to vote for abolition.

Says Abe: “That’s the end-point of grassroots education and activation. That’s Abolition. And that’s what I’ve been doing here in New Jersey.”

The Other Side of NJ Abolition

Abolition may have been getting all the attention lately in New Jersey, but there was a second recommendation by the New Jersey’s Death Penalty Study Commission that we believe is equally important: that the savings from abolishing the death penalty be put toward more services for murder victims’ family members.

Kathy Garcia is a victims’ advocate who served on the New Jersey study commission and has taught us a lot about the ways the criminal justice system ignores the needs of murder victims’ families. The government mandates services for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, but homicide survivors continue be unrecognized and under-served. Many family members left behind after a traumatic murder have no access to affordable specialized counseling services or peer support as they progress through various stages of the criminal justice system.

Kathy’s organization, the Center For Traumatic Grief & Victim Services, is one of the only organizations in all of New Jersey to provide these kinds of services to homicide survivors. Yet organizations like the Center for Traumatic Grief struggle to keep their doors open year after year to carry out their crucial mission.

The study commission in New Jersey got it right when it recommended that the savings from abolition should go to support organizations like Kathy’s and other services. Even if we win abolition in New Jersey tomorrow, our movement’s work is not done until we make sure the second recommendation is implemented too! Imagine the power of anti-death penalty organizers and victims’ rights advocates banding together, not only for abolition, but for a system that truly does serve the needs of murder victims’ family members.