Legislation that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for a number of nonviolent offenses has been awaiting a decision from Gov. Phil Murphy.
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.
Murphy can sign the bill or veto it. If he fails to act, the bill will automatically become law without his signature. Murphy opposes the bill because it includes the crime of official misconduct.
While the legislature was debating the bill, State Senator Nicholas Sacco, also the mayor of North Bergen, added an amendment to include eliminating mandatory minimums for official misconduct.
Those in favor
“It’s time for Governor Phil Murphy to do the right thing and sign this bill now to end mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses,” Sacco wrote on social media.
He referenced a quote from a recent op-ed in the Star-Ledger by Rev. Dr. Willard Ashley, pastor of the Abundant Joy Community Church in Jersey City, and Rev. Alison Miller, pastor of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship.
“Ending mandatory minimums does not take away the ability to put people in jail or prison for a crime; it merely takes power away from prosecutors and gives it back to judges,” they wrote. “Racial disparities are built into the criminal justice system as a whole in New Jersey. They are built into how mandatory minimum sentences writ-large are used by prosecutors. And — perhaps unsurprisingly — those racial disparities exist for crimes like ‘official misconduct,’ too.”
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 following the bill’s full passage. “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 National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL-NJ) urged Murphy to sign the bill.
“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.”
While some have supported the move, others have spoken out against it.
County prosecutors argued in a letter to the governor against the legislation. 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.
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.
If Murphy vetoes the bill, it’s not clear that legislators will have the votes to override the veto. Nor is it clear that they would attempt it.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.