Clashing over mandatory minimum sentences

Should the governor sign a bill repealing minimum sentences for some nonviolent crimes?

Attorneys urged Governor Phil Murphy to either sign or veto a bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent crimes.
Attorneys urged Governor Phil Murphy to either sign or veto a bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent crimes.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL-NJ) have urged Governor Phil Murphy to sign a bill that would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent crimes.

This comes after Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez, President of the County Prosecutor’s Association of New Jersey, sent a letter on behalf of the association asking the governor to veto the bill.

Currently, 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 mandatory minimum. According to the state, New Jersey has the nation’s largest disparity in incarceration rates among Black and white individuals, at a jarring 12 to 1 ratio.

Under the bill, passed by both houses of the New Jersey Legislature earlier this year, mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug and property offenses would be eliminated, following recommendations of the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission’s 2019 report.

The commission determined these sentences help increase the state’s prison population while “curtailing judicial discretion.”

According to the bill, crimes like cargo theft, shoplifting, hindering apprehension, manufacturing and distributing narcotics, and others would no longer carry a mandatory minimum sentence if signed into law.

Opposing legal arguments

“With this legislation, New Jersey has an opportunity to take historic action to restore some balance to the criminal legal system and provide a modicum of justice for thousands of incarcerated individuals, vastly people of color, who have served disproportionate prison terms,” said NACDL President Christopher Adams and the ACDL-NJ President Linda Foster in a joint statement. “For decades, New Jersey prosecutors have used the threat of mandatory minimum sentences to coerce accused persons into guilty pleas and forego their constitutional right to trial. The overreliance on manipulative plea bargains — coupled with the trial penalty for those who are heard by a jury and categorically receive greater sentences than what prosecutors may have originally offered — has contributed to mass incarceration and prison overcrowding in New Jersey, which has had severe consequences for inmates and their families especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The presidents urged Murphy to sign the legislation into law to help reform the criminal justice system.

On the other hand, county prosecutors argued in a letter to the governor that he should veto the bill, noting that an amendment to the bill sponsored by State Senator Nicholas Sacco to include eliminating mandatory minimums for official misconduct should not be included.

“The CPANJ is requesting that you veto or conditionally veto this bill to eliminate the provisions that go beyond the recommendations of the Criminal Sentencing Disposition Commission,” states the letter.

Suarez notes that the CPANJ supports changes to mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug and property crimes, as they recognize “the need to eliminate or amend specific sentence mandates … to address our current prison population, our desire to eliminate any unintended racial impact of these mandatory sentences, and to ‘take a significant step toward addressing the lack of proportionality of New Jersey’s sentencing laws.”

But the letter states that the CPANJ does not believe the bill should include the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed by state or local public officers or employees.

“The minimum mandatory sentences of the added crimes are a key deterrent to entrusted public officials and employees from violating their sworn duty,” states the letter.

The bill awaits Murphy’s signature or veto.

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