This week in wins: New Jersey restores voting rights for 80,000 people

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New Jersey took positive steps to restore voting rights, and Virginia is poised to make progress on the same issue in the new year.

Voting rights takes center stage in both New Jersey and Virginia, while the governors of Pennsylvania and Michigan tackle criminal justice reform and poverty, respectively. Plus, Congress funds gun violence research for the first time in two decades.

Read on to catch up on this week's wins.

New Jersey becomes 18th state to ensure voting rights for former felons

Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) signed legislation on Wednesday to restore voting rights to 80,000 New Jersey residents, NPR reported. The legislation ensures residents who are on probation or parole are able to make their voices heard.      

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"These are residents who are living as full participants in their communities and yet have been needlessly prevented from having a voice in the future direction of their communities," Murphy said at a signing ceremony, according to NPR. The law ensures those who are released from prison can "once again walk into a voting booth and have a say in our democracy," he added.

New Jersey becomes the 18th state to allow people on probation or parole to vote. Washington, D.C., also allows people on probation or parole to vote. 

The New Jersey law goes into effect in March of 2020. New Jersey's primary takes place on June 2, 2020. 

Congress allocates $25 million for gun violence research

For the first time in 20 years, Congress allocated millions of dollars to research gun violence. The funding was included in a year-end spending package, according to Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), chair of the Appropriations Committee.  

"As a survivor of gun violence, I could not be more proud of the measures we have taken to save the countless numbers of lives that may be affected by gun violence in the future," Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA) said on the House floor in support of the research funding. McBath lost her son, Jordan, to gun violence in 2012.

The money will be evenly split between two federal institutions, with half going to the Centers for Disease Control and the other half to the National Institutes of Health, according to ABC News

The funding "marks an important victory for the gun safety movement," John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement.

Criminal justice reform bills become law in Pennsylvania

Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) signed two criminal justice reform bills into law on Thursday, WENY reported. The bills will focus more on rehabilitation rather than punishment.  

"I couldn’t be prouder that we are ending this decade by signing Bills that continue our beliefs that our criminal justice system should be fair," Wolf said at a signing ceremony for the new laws, according to WENY.

One of the bills creates an advisory committee to examine the needs of those on probation and parole, with the goal of reducing incarceration. The other puts more of a focus on drug rehabilitation program over prison sentences, and would allow more nonviolent drug offenders be released on parole or probation.

Following 2019 victories, Virginia legislators prepare voting rights package for new year

Democrats in Virginia completed a sweep of both legislative chambers in the 2019 election and are eyeing a voting rights package as a top legislative priority when they officially take power in January, Daily Kos Elections reported.   

A series of bills look to make voting easier for Virginians, including expanding early voting from one week to two weeks and allowing more residents to vote by mail. Another bill would allow people as young as 16 to pre-register to vote, ensuring they are registered automatically on their 18th birthday. 

A same-day registration pilot program could also ensure more young people vote, according to Daily Kos Elections.

Following the 2019 elections, Democrats hold a 21-19 majority in the state Senate and a 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates. Before the election, Republicans held a slight majority in each chamber. 

Michigan governor creates poverty task force

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order on Wednesday creating a task force aimed at tackling poverty throughout Michigan, the Detroit News reported.  

"The task force is going to ensure we're doing everything we can to help families get the support they need," Whitmer said at a news conference. "This is a statewide problem that we are going to address." 

The task force will bring officials from 19 state agencies together to work with local and community leaders at addressing poverty.

"Today's action of signing this executive order for a poverty task force means we are working together with community leaders, people impacted by generational poverty and with partners inside and outside of state government to identify additional, concrete steps we can take together to make meaningful change for families in Michigan," Whitmer added.

Supreme Court refuses to allow cities to criminalize homelessness

The Supreme Court refused to hear a case regarding laws attempting to criminalize people for being homeless, which allows a lower court ruling to stand, the New York Times reported on Monday. In that ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that outlawing homeless people from sleeping on the streets if they have no other option is cruel and unusual punishment. 

"As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter," Judge Marsha Berzon wrote.

Eric Tars, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told the L.A. Times that he hopes cities will "take this opportunity to alter a completely unsuccessful way of dealing with homelessness."

Check back here in January for more good news.