The transition task force on law and justice issues presented Gov. Phil Murphy with an ambitious agenda for improving New Jersey’s criminal justice system and protecting the civil rights of a host of marginalized populations, particularly with so many attacks coming from Washington, D.C.
Collectively, the suggestions — including the protection of the rights of immigrants, women and the LGBTQ community, an expansion of voter registration, and tougher gun laws — envision a New Jersey that is much more progressive than it was during the last eight years and is closer to what one would expect from a “blue” state. And it is not shy about urging the Democratic governor to fight what it called “harmful” policies from the Trump administration.
“The breadth of recommendations in the report — transforming youth justice by closing New Jersey's failed youth prisons and restoring voting rights to people with criminal convictions, to name a few — could position New Jersey to serve as a national bright light for progressive action,” said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and one of nine co-chairs of the task force. “It is clear, particularly in light of this difficult national moment, that change will occur from the ground up in our communities.”
Many of the recommendations are identical, or similar, to ones Murphy made on the campaign trail last year and he has already taken some action on a number of them. For instance, he has already moved on the report’s first suggestion — to appoint members to the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which was created in 2009 and never populated by former Gov. Chris Christie and direct it to review sentencing issues. He has also either moved on or publicly said he will act to implement automatic voter registration with driver’s license and other motor vehicles transactions, support equal pay for women, continue to aggressively combat the opioid epidemic, create an Office of Immigrant Protection, and participate in litigation against “harmful national policies.”
New Jersey has already gotten involved in lawsuits opposing the Trump administration’s effort to end protection for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers and to withhold federal law enforcement aid from states and localities that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. The task force report was particularly critical of “illegal and unconstitutional federal policies” and insistent about New Jersey’s need to fight these. It gave a host of examples:
“In additions to … the Travel Ban, the rescission of DACA, the transgender military ban, and the new exemptions to the contraceptive requirement, States are also challenging a variety of illegal actions the Administration has taken regarding: (1) the environment, including the EPA’s administrative stay of methane standards for the oil and gas sector; (2) consumer protection, including the Department of Education’s decision to indefinitely delay the implementation of borrower-defense regulations, which protect students at for-profit colleges; and (3) health-care, including Administration’s decision to terminate cost-sharing reduction subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. States also have publicly stated that they will sue now that Congress has largely eliminated the deduction for state and local taxes (SALT) because by attempting to tax taxes paid to state governments, the federal government denies the co-equal sovereignty of the States.”
The report also suggested Attorney General Gurbir Grewal create a position of solicitor general within his department to oversee the state’s litigation in these and other matters. Another position the report recommends Grewal create, under the section on increasing fairness in criminal justice, is that of head of community policing to promote that concept and also review policies on body cameras and the use of force, improve diversity in law enforcement and assess training requirements in the areas of bias, cultural awareness, mental health and the disabled.
“Policing is effective only when community members work with the police to address the problems of crime in their neighborhoods,” the report states. “Police must see themselves as a part of the community they serve, and local government officials and members of the community must recognize their own responsibility to collaborate with police to address crime and its underlying causes. Across New Jersey, many law enforcement departments and communities have successfully fostered those relationships … But much more remains to be done, particularly because the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Sessions is walking away from its responsibility in this area.”
Other recommendations to make the justice system fairer include creating an inter-agency re-entry council to reduce recidivism rates and help those released from prison to succeed, naming a commission to recommend the best ways to close and replace the youth correctional facilities, and improving the reporting of and response to hate crimes. The report suggests several ways to help some of the groups that can be victims of hate crimes, including immigrants, and those in the LGBT community.
It says New Jersey needs to make state driver’s licenses available to all residents who meet the age, residency and public safety requirements, regardless of immigration status. And it urges the state to limit local and state law enforcement from detaining people wanted by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials or engaging in immigration enforcement activities without a judge’s order.
“New Jersey has a unique opportunity to protect its sizeable immigrant and refugee population and to fight back against federal attacks that undermine both our public safety and our Constitution,” the report states, adding its suggestions are designed to “protect the rights of immigrants and refugees in New Jersey, strengthen our economy, and enhance public safety.”
The report also recommendss that the state get involved in legal actions to try to prevent policies that would harm the LGBTQ community and endorse legislation to allow transgender individuals to amend their birth certificates without having to have sex reassignment surgery.
Protecting women’s rights should also be a priority, the report states. And it urges Murphy to not only promote equal pay, but also ensure that the state’s sexual harassment training program is “current, comprehensive and mandatory for state employees at all levels” as well create a commission to study and suggest a plan of action against sexual assaults on college campuses.
The report suggests Murphy reverse the recent course taken by Christie and enact new gun laws to prevent gun violence. Specifically, it calls for a ban on the possession of bump stocks, such as the one used in last year’s deadliest mass shooting in American history in Las Vegas, that can allow a semi-automatic rifle to fire more than 400 rounds per minute. It also seeks the creation of “gun violence restraining orders” that would prevent a person who poses a danger to himself of others from possessing or purchasing guns or ammunition and would allow police to confiscate firearms the person already owns.
“Like the domestic violence restraining orders in place in all fifty States, the GVRO has the potential to prevent harm in a crisis,” the report states.
Calling the vote “central to a functioning democracy,” the report recommended several ways New Jersey should make it easier for people to register to vote, including an online voter registration system.
“The right to vote is a fundamental right that undergirds all of our other constitutional rights,” the report states. “We are also a better, stronger, more representative democracy when more people participate. New Jersey, however, ranked just 29th in turnout in the 2016 presidential election, the second-lowest turnout ever recorded in this State for a presidential year. As a State, we must advance voting rights reforms that will empower more people to participate in the political process.”
Stating an independent judiciary is critical in New Jersey, the report urges Murphy to restore the respectful relationship between the governor and the judiciary that existed prior to Christie’s tenure. The former governor refused to renominate two Supreme Court members, which had left the state’s highest court without a full slate for years, and delayed renominating Chief Justice Stuart Rabner until he got a deal that put one of his allies on the court. He also criticized judges for being too liberal or activists. The state Bar Association was so concerned it created a commission to ensure the judiciary’s independence.
“For over sixty years after the current New Jersey Constitution was adopted in 1947, twelve New Jersey governors from both major political parties developed an admirable tradition of respect for the role of an independent judiciary,” the report states. “Through a number of unwritten but assiduously observed practices, prior governors refused to use their constitutional authority to nominate judges in order to gain immediate partisan political advantage. The State Senate, in turn, routinely confirmed the nominations of the Governor, even if the Governor was of the opposing political party, in what was a non-partisan and nonpoliticized process. These practices contributed to the reputation of the New Jersey Judiciary as among the finest — if not the finest — in the nation.”
To restore that reputation, the report suggests Murphy reaffirm the practice of renominating for tenure justices appointed by a predecessor as long as they are qualified, continue the practice of ensuring that no more than four members of the Supreme Court are of the same political party and nominating other court judges equally from both parties and seek judges of diverse backgrounds. It also recommends the governor consider raising judicial salaries to attract qualified candidates, something the Legislature has already begun to do as a committee has approved a bill to increase judges’ salaries by $8,000 a year over the next three years.
There are other recommendations in the report on which lawmakers seem to be taking the lead. For instance, the report suggests the creation of a commission to study and recommend how to legally tax and regulate marijuana, an issue about which legislative committees are currently holding hearings. And legislators last week introduced bills to restore the right to vote to people on probation, on parole, and those still incarcerated; the task force report does not specifically include those still imprisoned in its recommendation about restoring the vote.