Prison Reform Bills Will Offer Early Release, End Mandatory Minimum Sentences

New Jersey lawmakers have passed several bills meant to improve elements of criminal justice system, such as sentencing, incarceration and policing

As Black Lives Matter protests continue across the country and New Jersey advocates continue to call for reform here, lawmakers have approved more than a dozen bills that seek to improve many levels of criminal justice, from policing to sentencing to incarceration.

Several of the measures passed last Thursday also were inspired by lawmakers’ unhappiness with how fast and how many inmates were given temporary release to control the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and halfway houses, where 49 already have died and about 2,900 have been infected. New Jersey continues to have the highest rate of prisoners who have died of the virus of any state, 29 per 10,000, according to The Marshall Project.

To date, the state has released 566 individuals on parole and 301 on emergency medical home confinement under an emergency order from Gov. Phil Murphy, though some of these individuals may have been returned to confinement for violating their release terms. The number of inmates allowed out as of last Thursday represents only a third of those eligible who sought consideration for release.

“Especially now, during this health crisis, we have to find ways of decreasing the prison population and lessening the chance for the continued spread of COVID-19,” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union), sponsor of one of the measures.

Public health emergency credits

One bill (S-2519) comes close to implementing a proposal by advocacy groups to essentially grant early release to all those within a year of completing a sentence. The legislation would create a system of “public health emergency credits” that would effectively reduce the sentences of all inmates except compulsive sex offenders by eight months due to the current health emergency. It would cut sentences during any declared health emergency by four months for each month of the declared state of emergency, with a maximum reduction of eight months. It would also require the imposition of “no contact” orders on inmates released as a result of the credits. The Senate passed the bill, 27-0, and the Assembly amended its version, but still needs to pass it.

“A prison sentence should not become a death sentence, especially when a few months can mean the difference between life and death,” said Sarah Fajardo, policy director with ACLU-NJ, which backs the measure. “We need fast, fair, efficient release of as many people as possible, especially those nearing the end of their sentences, to protect people both inside and beyond prisons.”

Most of the bills passed one house or the other along party lines, with many receiving at least some Republican support in addition to majority or all Democrats’ “yes” votes. The Assembly focused more on incarceration and sentencing reforms, while the Senate made policing its priority.

“For far too long we have seen the spark of action after a police killing die down before meaningful change occurs, but not anymore,” said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), a sponsor of several police reform measures. “There is still much work to be done but I am confident we will get this legislation, and more, across the finish line this session. The stakes are too high to wait any longer and the sustained protests around the country have made it clear that the time for change is now.”

All but one of the measures need further legislative action. The one that received final Senate passage and is now on Murphy’s desk is A-3641, which requires the state Department of Law and Public Safety to incorporate implicit bias in cultural diversity training materials for law enforcement officers and makes that training mandatory.

Ending mandatory minimum sentences

The bill with probably the greatest impact, which passed the Assembly, 52-19, is A-4369, which would implement the sentencing recommendations of the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission. That bipartisan, 13-member commission, chaired by retired state Supreme Court Justice Deborah Poritz, called for ending mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of nonviolent drug and property crimes, such as shoplifting. It would also reduce the mandatory prison terms for second degree robbery and burglary to half of the sentence imposed. Some of the commission’s other recommendations, such as a compassion release program and implementing a new mitigating sentencing factor for young offenders, are embodied in other bills that passed last Thursday.

Other measures that cleared one house or the other last week include:

  • A-1254 would provide for “geriatric parole” for nonviolent offenders age 65 and older who have completed at least a third of a sentence. Currently, 72 incarcerated individuals would qualify, according to bill sponsors. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has reported a reincarceration rate of just 4% for those age 65 and older. The Assembly passed the bill, 60-12.
  • A-4368 would expand a municipal court conditional dismissal program to include those charged with some drug offenses and allow for the dismissal of those charges after one year’s probation. The Assembly passed the bill, 73-0.
  • A-2370 would replace the state’s current medical release program, which has led to the medical parole of only one inmate a year over the last five years, with a “compassionate release” system. The new program would provide for a court to release an inmate with a grave medical condition, terminal disease or permanent physical incapacity. The Assembly passed the bill, 68-2.
  • A-4371 would require the state corrections commissioner to conduct a study to determine the financial impact of the pending compassionate release program and elimination of mandatory minimum sentences. Any savings would be deposited into a special fund used to support re-entry services and recidivism reduction programs. The Assembly passed the bill, 75-0.
  • A-4370 would authorize the state Supreme Court to issue an order to retroactively rescind mandatory minimum terms of parole ineligibility for nonviolent drug and property crimes and to modify some other conviction judgments, in line with the proposed elimination of mandatory minimum sentences in the future. The bill passed the Assembly, 51-21.
  • A-4372 would provide for resentencing certain inmates who committed a crime as a juvenile and were tried as an adult, were sentenced to 30 years or more, have served at least 20 years and have not previously been resentenced. The bill passed the Assembly, 47-24.
  • S-401 would require law enforcement agencies to establish minority recruitment and selection programs. The Senate passed the bill, 39-1.
  • S-415 would require the state Division of Parole to offer parole services to certain defendants who have served their maximum sentence. Currently, parole services are only offered to those released on parole. The Senate passed the bill, 32-6.
  • S-419 would require law enforcement agencies to provide law enforcement officers with cultural diversity training and develop a diversity action plan that would include outreach into the community and forming partnerships with organizations to prevent discrimination. The Senate passed the bill, 39-0.
  • S-2638 would require the state attorney general to collect and report certain prosecutorial and criminal justice data from arrest through the disposition of a case by race, gender, age and ethnicity of defendants. The Senate passed the bill, 40-0.