Lawmakers look to break impasse on mandatory minimum sentencing

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | February 17, 2021 | Social
A commission found that sentencing minimums, especially for drug offenses, are behind the wide racial disparity among state prisoners
Credit: (Pool photo: Ed Murray/NJ Advance Media)
Gov. Phil Murphy, seen here delivering State of the State address, has balked at move to extend relief to those convicted of official misconduct.

The New Jersey Senate went back to square one Tuesday in an effort to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for all nonviolent crimes, most importantly drug offenses, 15 months after a state commission recommended the change.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-0 and with little fanfare to advance S-3456, amid calls by activists for lawmakers to end mandatory minimum sentences. The New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission in its November 2019 report indicated  that such requirements — that a person serve a minimum amount of time before parole eligibility — are responsible for much of the disparity at the state’s prisons, where the incarceration rate for Blacks is 12 times higher than for whites.

“The elimination of those specific mandatory minimums was agreed to unanimously by the commission. Nothing should stand in the way of moving forward with these urgently needed reforms. We look forward to continuing our partnership with the Legislature to reduce racial disparities in New Jersey’s criminal justice system,” Gov. Phil Murphy wrote last week in a joint statement with Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver; former Supreme Court Justice Deborah Poritz who chaired the sentencing commission, and Jiles Ship, president of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

According to the commission’s report, mandatory minimum sentences were virtually nonexistent before 1981, when the Legislature began enacting them for certain crimes. Between 1997 and 2007, lawmakers passed more than 100 new or harsher minimum sentencing provisions.

Drug offenses were a frequent target. Beginning in 1986, lawmakers in what was known as the national “war on drugs,” imposed new mandatory minimums for drug crimes — including for those convicted of intending to distribute drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, as well as harsher sentences for repeat offenders. These were largely responsible for increasing the prison population and, in particular, exacerbating the racial disparities among the incarcerated.

Include official misconduct?

Last July, the state Assembly passed a bill embodying the commission’s recommendations. But it was amended by the Senate Judiciary Committee to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for official misconduct charges against public officials at the request of Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson), whose girlfriend’s son is facing charges for an alleged no-show job in North Bergen, where Sacco is the mayor.

Murphy has been critical of the provision, saying officials who violate the public trust are not among the intended beneficiaries of the commission’s recommendations.

With the provision added, the bill was stalled for several months, prompting more and more urgent calls from social justice activists for lawmakers to approve a bill and send it to Murphy, regardless.

Two months ago, the state public defender, New Jersey ACLU and New Jersey Together, a coalition of religious congregations, held a press conference with about 150 individuals on hand calling for the reform of mandatory minimum sentences laws. Last month, members signed a letter to Murphy and lawmakers again asking for action, saying it would allow more than 1,000 individuals to be released earlier on parole.

‘Time for action is now’

Al-Tariq Witcher, an organizer with New Jersey Together, was one of two people to speak in favor of the bill during Tuesday’s hearing.

“The time for action is now — well, no, it was actually years ago,” said Witcher, who said he served a minimum 10-year sentence for being caught in 2002 with $230 worth of cocaine and a weapon within a so-called Drug Free School Zone.

“The longer you delay, the more people will be affected,” he added. “The time is now to put the sentencing power back where it belongs, in the hands of judges. The time is now to let the punishment fit the crime. Let’s eliminate mandatory minimums. This is not about politics. It’s about people. It’s about people like me. Please, let’s get this done.”

The bill the committee passed Tuesday would eliminate mandatory minimums for the nonviolent crimes and drug offenses the commission recommended and go beyond that, ending required sentences for all nonviolent crimes, including official misconduct. Given that provision is still in the bill, it is unclear whether it will get the support of other lawmakers and Murphy.

Neither of the bill’s sponsors spoke at the hearing, something that typically occurs. But both released statements in support of the measure.

“Judicial discretion is needed to best determine the appropriate level of punishment,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson). “We have to return decision-making to the courts for matching an individual’s punishment to account for the nature and circumstances of the crime.”

The other sponsor, Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), chairs the judiciary committee but did not comment on the bill during the hearing.

“As we continue to bring more fairness to the justice system, we must move away from imposing lengthy sentences for minor offenses and tying the hands of judges,” he said in a statement issued later. “By removing mandatory minimums on non-violent offenses we can return the discretionary power back to our judges and allow them to issue sentences based on what is truly in the best interest of the individual and society.”

Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Hudson), said he plans to sponsor the Senate version of the bill in the lower house. It would be the third version of a mandatory minimum reform bill he has sponsored this session. He was a sponsor of the original bill that was amended.