Bill eliminating mandatory sentences heads to Governor’s desk

The legislation became controversial after an amendment by State Senator Nicholas Sacco

Governor Murphy signed legislation protecting LGBTQI+ and HIV-positive residents in long-term care facilities on Wednesday, March 3. Photo by Edwin J. Torres for the Governor's Office.
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Governor Murphy signed legislation protecting LGBTQI+ and HIV-positive residents in long-term care facilities on Wednesday, March 3. Photo by Edwin J. Torres for the Governor's Office.

A bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent crimes has passed both houses of the New Jersey Legislature and is headed to Gov. Phil Murphy for his signature.

As the law currently stands, courts are required to sentence a person to a minimum length of time¬†in prison if they are convicted of a crime with a pre-determined ‚Äėmandatory minimum,‚Äô¬†regardless of whether a judge believes the sentence is applicable to the specific circumstances of¬†that case.

New Jersey has a number of mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving firearms, drugs and other forms of misconduct.

Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti was one of the legislators who sponsored the bill, recognizing the harmful impact of mandatory minimum sentencing on residents, particularly residents of color. Chiaravalloti represents the 31st Legislative District, which includes Bayonne.

‚ÄúMandatory minimum sentencing was a key weapon in the war on drugs. Forty years later we now have statistical data that shows it does not work,‚ÄĚ Chiaravalloti said. ‚ÄúToday‚Äôs proposal does not eliminate any crimes, it simply places the power to determine proper punishment in the hands of judges. In my opinion, the facts of each case are unique. Therefore, I honestly believe we should rely on judges – who have the training, the information, and hopefully wisdom ‚Äď to do their jobs.‚ÄĚ

The legislature included the drug and nonviolent crimes recommended by the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission‚Äôs 2019 report on the elimination of mandatory minimums. The commission determined these sentences help increase the state‚Äôs prison population while ‚Äėcurtailing judicial discretion.‚Äô

‚ÄúNationally, there is a bipartisan movement to eliminate mandatory minimums because they do not serve as a deterrent and they disproportionately impact communities of color,‚ÄĚ Chiaravalloti said. ‚ÄúThis legislation, thanks to the foundation laid by Justice Proitz and the Sentencing Commission, if signed by Governor Murphy will serve as a national model for criminal justice reform.‚ÄĚ

Official misconduct too?

While the legislature was debating the bill, another legislator from Hudson County added an amendment that sparked controversy. State Senator Nicholas Sacco, also the mayor of North Bergen, added an amendment to the bill to include eliminating mandatory minimums for official misconduct.

“I would like to thank the State Assembly for joining with the State Senate and passing this critical criminal justice reform bill that will correct many of the disparities and unfair treatment that unfortunately exist in our state when it comes to how cases are prosecuted and justice is applied,” Sacco said.

“Removing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses does not mean lesser penalties for offenders, it means that the punishment will once again fit the crime, and we will allow judges to exercise discretion and make the appropriate sentencing decision that each individual case demands. This is both an issue of civil rights and of fundamental fairness, and taking action to end mandatory minimum sentences is even a key plank of President Biden’s criminal justice reform agenda, which incentivizes states to remove these draconian policies in order to become eligible for new federal funding.”

He continued: “As criminal justice reform advocates have noted, these mandatory minimum sentences have led to minorities being incarcerated at higher rates for a variety of crimes, including for official misconduct and other charges involving public employment. I have opposed these unjust laws since their inception in our state, and along with Senator Scutari I was the only member of the State Senate who did not support them in 2007.”

Sacco has come under fire for his amendment, which critics say will benefit his longtime girlfriend’s son who was charged with official misconduct in 2015.

“It is unfortunate that some media outlets and commentators have overlooked this fact and instead made false allegations about my motivation for wanting to right these wrongs,” Sacco said. “It has never been more clear that these disparities need to end, and I am hopeful that Governor Murphy will listen to the criminal justice reform advocates who support this bill, as well as to a bipartisan majority of the state legislature, and sign these reforms into law.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. However, Murphy has indicated in the past that he does not support reducing mandatory minimum sentences for official misconduct. It is not clear how Murphy will respond.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.