Jacobs is leaving to become vice president for advocacy and policy at the Ms. Foundation for Women, where she will develop national strategies and expertise to advance gender equality.
“New Jersey is a uniquely challenging and deeply rewarding place to fight for civil liberties, and I’ll miss every part of it,” Jacobs said. “However, I’m thrilled to direct my energies into much-needed advocacy for women and girls. Especially now, as women come under intense attack from so many corners of politics and society.”
In a news release about her departure, Frank Corrado, president of the ACLU-NJ Board of Trustees, praised Jacobs’ leadership in the state and the organization.
“Since coming to New Jersey, Deborah has been one of the boldest, most passionate and most respected advocates in the Garden State,” Corrado said. “She has been an unwavering guardian of civil rights, and has never been afraid to stand up for what’s right, even if it seemed unpopular at the time. Often, those unpopular stances proved to be correct. She has built the ACLU-NJ into the state’s most effective civil rights organization by establishing a presence in the streets, in the Statehouse and at community events statewide. We wish her well, but we will miss her dearly.”
Under Jacobs’ leadership, the ACLU-NJ flourished to become one of the largest ACLU affiliates in the nation, more than tripling its staff from four to 14 and swelling the budget from $200,000 to nearly $2 million. She targeted resources at programs focusing on racial justice, voting rights, police practices and open government.
During Jacobs’ early years in New Jersey, the ACLU-NJ secured major victories to stop racial profiling, monitoring the state police’s progress under a federal consent decree and bringing successful lawsuits on behalf of victims of racial profiling by state and local police departments.
In 2001, the ACLU-NJ brought the first legal challenges in the nation to secret detention and deportation hearings of immigrants after the Sept. 11 attacks. Jacobs quickly deployed staff on the ground in New Jersey’s diverse immigrant communities, which faced new government scrutiny and forms of discrimination.
Recognizing police misconduct as among the most direct and brutal of civil liberties violations, Jacobs became a leading advocate for statewide reforms and a recognized expert in police practices. In 2010, the ACLU-NJ documented patterns of abuse and misconduct in the long-troubled Newark Police Department, the state’s largest municipal police force, and presented the data in a petition seeking the Department of Justice’s intervention. In 2011, the Department of Justice announced that it would investigate the Newark Police.
Jacobs’ exit comes on the heels of two major ACLU victories. An ACLU-NJ lawsuit in May halted the Motor Vehicle Commission’s TRU-ID, an invasive, costly new driver’s license program imposed on citizens without any public scrutiny. The ACLU-NJ also negotiated an agreement in May to dramatically overhaul the Passaic County Jail, which now promises prisoners more humane conditions at what was considered for three decades one of the most notorious jails in the U.S.
“Deborah Jacobs leaves behind a long list of accomplishments and victories,” said ACLU National Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “She’s a force to be reckoned with, a talented leader, and a visionary who gives energy to any movement she’s a part of. The ACLU-NJ says goodbye for now to a canny, valued leader, but the Ms. Foundation gains a disciplined, dedicated activist with a talent for making the world a better place.”
Jacobs started her career at the ACLU in 1992 as a junior staffer at the ACLU of Washington, where she directed intake and managed volunteers. In 1996, she rose to become head of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, in St. Louis, becoming the youngest executive director of a state ACLU affiliate.
“I have loved every minute of my time at the ACLU,” Jacobs said. “The ACLU is in my DNA and its principles are the lifeblood of democracy. I will never take for granted my good fortune of leading such an exciting organization with so much potential to affect people’s lives. I feel gratified knowing that in my new role I’ll still work toward greater justice in society, but for a particularly vulnerable part of the population on a national scale.”