Friday, July 1, 2016

Immed Release: Essex County Sheriff’s Department Suppresses Democratic Free Speech Rights of 12:1 Racial Disparity Critics

Contact Bob Witanek 908-881-5275 

Essex County Sheriff’s Department Suppresses Democratic Free Speech Rights of 12:1 Racial Disparity Critics

An attempt by members of Decarcerate the Garden State to share hand outs of the group’s newspaper NJ Decarcerator and a hand out critical of the role of courts, police and prosecutors in contributing to the 12:1 incarceration disparity between NJ’s Black vs. white residents was thwarted on June 30 by two officers of the Essex County Sheriff’s Department.

According to Bob Witanek, as soon as he and one other member arrived near the entrance of the Superior Courthouse on 50 West Market Street, in Newark, NJ, he saw a man in plain clothes come out of the building and walk over to the uniformed sheriff officers.  The officers then proceeded toward the Decarceration activists.  One officer repeatedly asked the activists if they needed help with anything.  The other informed, in an action caught on video, that:

“You need to take this stuff, you can’t give solicitations on county property.”   Told that the information was not a solicitation, he restated, “You can’t give out literature on county property.”  Asked if there was an ordinance, the officer said, “Take your stuff and move it off county property.  You can go out there to the street corner, anywhere else, you can’t do it on county property.”  Asked again about an ordinance he stated, “We can find an ordinance, I know there’s an ordinance, the county has an ordinance.  You can not give it out without permission from the county. “  The officer then added “There is no video taping on county property without permission sir.”

The activists then left the area directly near the entrances and were joined on the sidewalk by about a half dozen other activists for the next two hours to distribute the information to defendant families coming to the court and other passers-by.

The information being distributed by the organization Decarcerate the Garden State is calling for “Racial Scorecards for Prosecutors, Courts, Police - And Commutation Relief for those who have been OVER PROSECUTED AND OVER SENTENCED!” 

Their flier continues, “A recent Sentencing Project study reveals that in NJ– a Black person is 12 times as likely a white to end up in prison.  We need to *dig deeper into the data* to determine who are the actors and what are the methods being utilized to deliver these disparities.

We need racial scorecards for NJ judges, prosecutors, municipal and county courts, police forces and individual police.  Racial disparities should be explained:
*        Who gets arrested compared to the likelihood of each to commit the offenses?
*        For whom are excessive charges used to force pleas and longer sentences?
*        What are conviction rates and what sentences are given for similar crimes?
*        What are arrest records vs. crime incidence vs. community demographics of individual police, of precincts, of police captains, etc?
*        For prosecutors, analysis of racial factors in their leniency or harshness, in their selection of which cases to prosecute, racial disparities in their conviction rates, in plea bargaining and other aspects of their prosecution.

What is needed:
*       Immediate relief through amnesty and sentence commutation to time served for those found to have been victimized by racial factors in any aspect of their encounter with NJ’s criminal justice system.
*       Address the related social dynamics that contribute to behavior resulting in arrest.
*       Identify and weed out police, prosecutors, judges and attorneys general that show bias in their administration of justice – determine if misconduct is a factor.
*       Put in place monitoring and training to prevent continuation of such racial application of law enforcement and criminal justice in NJ.”

According to Bob Witanek, a co-founder of Decarcerate the Garden State and co-author of flier, “We have a democratic right to free speech to advocate against the way that tax funded services of criminal justice are being proffered by the employees of the County including judges and prosecutors, and of various other governmental levels in the form of police that are responsible for racial factoring into their policing.  Defendants have a right to access to the information we are distributing to be made aware of racial factoring that might be going into their prosecution.  At a time when defendants are being coerced into taking plea agreements to sentences that might impact several years or even decades of their lives, possibly lengthened by racial factors, they have a right to the access to our information in front of the building where such factors might be applied.”

Witanek further stated, “The County Courthouse is public property – paid for by the public.  Free speech must not be policed by armed officers of the sheriff’s department.  The officer stated permission is needed from the county, and that suggests that the county seeks to have control over what kind of speech is allowed in this public and tax payer funded setting.”

Witanek states that his organization is reaching out to the NJ ACLU and to several other attorneys to investigate the possibility of filing court paper work to assert the democratic rights of advocates against racial factors in NJ prosecution and sentencing.  He says his organization plans to continue to deliver the flier and the groups newspaper at the Essex County Superior Courthouse and at other county courthouses throughout the state of NJ.

He continues, "This is only the beginning of our struggle to demand answers and solutions to how NJ ends up with this 12:1 ratio.  The prosecutors, the police and the judges are responsible at least in part and that responsibility needs to be addressed and remedied.  The remedy must include commutation of the sentences of those that were subjected to racially motivated decision making.  This attempt to stifle our democratic free speech rights and our right to advocate and decarcarate the Garden State is a temporary obstacle that will be swiftly overcome.

Bennet Zurofsky, a Newark based labor and constitutional rights attorney states, upon review of the video recording,

I do not know what ordinances may exist, and we would have to find out, but as described by the officer they seem unconstitutional to me.  Recent litigation, for example, has established the right to videotape police in the performance of their duties.  If there are none, the officers plainly overstepped their bounds."

The organization Decarcerate the Garden State, in partnership with The Peoples Organization for Progress and support from numerous other statewide and local organizations is pushing for a statewide set of actions on September 9th to protest mass incarceration, prison enslavement, to call for freedom of political prisoners and improved conditions inside of NJ’s carceral facilities.  The group can be reached at 908-881-5275 or .  They also operate a blog site at .  They have an active discussion of this organizing effort in their Facebook group that boasts almost 1000 members.

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