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Still grappling over eliminating mandatory minimum sentences

Gov. Murphy opposes eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for official misconduct. Photo by Edwin J. Torres at the Governor’s Office.
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Gov. Murphy opposes eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for official misconduct. Photo by Edwin J. Torres at the Governor’s Office.

Gov. Phil Murphy has conditionally vetoed a bill that would have eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses.

The governor’s conditional veto on April 19 removes provisions that would have weakened penalties associated with public corruption offenses, including official misconduct. NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a directive eliminating mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.

“I’d like to first applaud Attorney General Grewal for his sweeping decision to issue a directive pursuant to his supervisory authority that will allow the sentences of those currently incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses to be revised to what they would have been absent mandatory minimums, meaning hundreds and potentially thousands of nonviolent offenders will face shorter prison terms,” Murphysaid. “This directive will take mandatory minimum sentences off the table for future nonviolent drug offenses.”

Now, nonviolent drug offenders who are in prison now or who will face prison in the future will receive “immediate and meaningful” relief, according to Murphy.

“It’s been nearly two years since I first joined with all 21 of our state’s County Prosecutors to call for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes,” Grewal said. “It’s been more than a year since the Governor’s bipartisan commission made the same recommendation. And yet New Jerseyans still remain behind bars for unnecessarily long drug sentences. This outdated policy is hurting our residents, and it’s disproportionately affecting our young men of color. We can wait no longer. It’s time to act.”

Official misconduct to blame?

“During our year-and-a-half-long push to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes, the legislation was amended in a way that would have eliminated mandatory prison sentences for a number of public corruption offenses, including official misconduct,” Murphy said. “After much deliberation, I have determined that I cannot sign this bill, which goes far beyond the recommendations of the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission. The legislation also falls short because it does not offer relief for currently incarcerated individuals serving mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.”

The inclusion of official misconduct was a deal beaker.

“I am particularly troubled by the notion that this bill would eliminate mandatory prison time for elected officials who abuse their office for their own benefit, such as those who take bribes,” Murphy said. “I am also mindful of the fact that I am taking action on this bill in the middle of the trial for George Floyd’s murder, and days after the deaths of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo. New Jersey’s robust penalties against public corruption offenses, such as official misconduct, are often the most powerful tools that our prosecutors have to hold bad actors in law enforcement accountable. At a time when our nation is finally reckoning with accountability for abusive policing practices, weakening the penalties used to address police misconduct would send exactly the wrong message.”

Murphy continued: “The Attorney General’s sweeping directive provides much-needed relief to those currently entangled in our criminal justice system. I remain hopeful that the Legislature will concur with my proposed revisions to S3456, which reflect the Commission’s original recommendations, and that the Attorney General’s sweeping administrative change will be solidified in law.”

Sacco disappointed

While the legislature was debating the bill, State Senator Nicholas Sacco, also the mayor of North Bergen, added the amendment to include eliminating mandatory minimums for official misconduct. Prior to Murphy’s conditional veto, Sacco had been urging him to sign the legislation into law.

“I have long been opposed to mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and did not vote to enact them when they were imposed in 2007,” Sacco said. “I am extremely disappointed in Governor Murphy’s actions, which not only fail to fully address racial disparities in our criminal justice system but also jeopardize eligibility for $20 billion in potential federal funding during a time when our state is still reeling from the pandemic.”

Sacco is referencing a proposal made by President Joe Biden during his 2020 campaign to create a grant program to encourage criminal justice reform that has yet to be instituted.

“New Jersey is lagging behind the rest of the nation in criminal justice reform, as evidenced by the fact that 48 other states do not impose mandatory minimums for official misconduct and similar offenses, which New Jersey will still do despite the directive from the Attorney General which may not even pass legal muster,” Sacco said. “This fight for justice is not over, and I will be working with my Senate and Assembly colleagues and advocates to remove mandatory minimums for all nonviolent offenses by supporting newly filed legislation. Governor Murphy and Attorney General Grewal should be held accountable for circumventing the legislature and denying justice to people facing unjust prosecutions by essentially treating public employees as second class citizens. Sentencing power must be entrusted to judges, not to politicians.”

Advocates disappointed

A number of advocacy groups who’d urged Murphy to sign the bill praised the move but expressed disappointment. Among them was Executive Director Amol Sinha of the American Civil Liberties Union- New Jersey (ACLU-NJ).

“Mandatory minimums have been a tool of injustice for decades, and S3456 takes important steps to limit them,” Sinha said. “While the rationale for Gov. Murphy’s conditional veto, which asks the Legislature to keep intact the mandatory minimum for official government misconduct, raises some legitimate concerns about political process and transparency that New Jersey must grapple with, we are disappointed by today’s action. The directive issued today by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal takes significant steps to mitigate the harms of some of the most problematic mandatory minimums, and importantly provides relief for those currently incarcerated because of unjust mandatory sentences. Still, our state falls short by failing to enact legislation that can promote justice for thousands of New Jerseyans, disproportionately Black and brown people.”

Sinha continued: “In order to make sure people can escape some of the injustices of mandatory minimums, we strongly urge the Legislature to approve the Governor’s conditional veto and to pass S2593, which makes the changes from S3456 retroactive, to codify what the Attorney General achieves through the new directive. And we urge our elected officials to put politics aside, and work together to end all mandatory minimums in New Jersey.”

Round two?

Following Murphy’s conditional veto, the bill was reintroduced in the state Senate by Senator Sandra Cunningham and Senator Nicholas Scutari.

“We want to give the Governor the opportunity to fully appreciate the importance of this reform and reconsider his action,” Cunningham said. “This is the same bill, but we hope the Governor will act differently when it gets to his desk.”

The bill seems unlikely to become law given Murphy’s unwavering opposition to the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for official misconduct.

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.

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