Final vote expected on NJ bill eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for 29 crimes
Gov. Phil Murphy gives his 2021 New Jersey budget address. NorthJersey.com
Advocates for criminal justice reform are cheering a new bill up for approval in the state Assembly that would eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences for a bevy of crimes, from public corruption to drug possession to shoplifting.
The bill, S-3456, which received swift approval from the state Senate on Monday with no discussion and advanced at an Assembly committee meeting Wednesday, remains controversial, with one Republican lawmaker chiding his colleagues for writing themselves a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”
The effort in New Jersey to ax mandatory minimum prison sentences is part of a nationwide push to revisit anti-crime legislation from the 1980s and ‘90s that reformers blame for creating a dramatic racial disparity among inmates. New Jersey’s disparity is among the worst in the nation, experts say.
“The time is now to put the sentencing power back where it belongs, in the hands of judges,” said Al-Tariq Witcher, a former inmate who testified in favor of the bill last week. “The time is now to let the punishment fit the crime.”
New Jersey’s push to reform sentencing laws has been clouded by politics. An earlier bill to eliminate mandatory minimums for 13 crimes, including second-degree robbery and burglary, was amended by Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, to include official misconduct, the criminal charge for public corruption. The bill stalled in the Assembly after Politico New Jersey revealed the son of Sacco's girlfriend is about to go on trial for official misconduct.
A new bill was introduced in the Senate on Feb. 11 to break the logjam. Now 29 crimes, including official misconduct, would not result in mandatory minimum prison sentences, including two more that Sacco’s girlfriend’s son faces. Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, was one of two Republicans who voted against it at Wednesday’s committee hearing.
Bergen said he supported the earlier bill before Sacco’s amendment, but he said including official misconduct makes the measure unpalatable. About 60 people have been charged with that crime in the last two years statewide, mostly police officers and teachers accused of misusing their official position.
“It's the Legislature legislating themselves out of trouble. It's ridiculous,” Bergen said. “Every time I support a Democrat-majority bill and I stand on an island away from my peers, it comes back to bite me and it gets more wackadoodle as we go. This one is just crazy."
Besides the crimes already mentioned, mandatory minimums would also be halted for:
- leading a narcotics trafficking network
- selling drugs to a pregnant woman
- tampering with public records
- money laundering
- bribery in official matters
Racial disparities in prison sentencing
New Jersey lawmakers have worked for years to reform New Jersey laws on prison sentences. State Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham, D-Hudson, a leading sponsor of the mandatory minimums bill, said she knows first-hand the effects racial disparities in sentencing can have on communities like hers in Jersey City.
“There are times when African American children make horrible mistakes and they go to jail, whereas their white counterpart does not go to jail for the same kind of issue,” Cunningham said.
In federal prisons, there are 139 Black inmates per 100,000 Black residents, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The figure for white inmates is 37 per 100,000. According to the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for criminal justice reform, Black New Jerseyans are incarcerated at a rate 10 times that of whites, the highest disparity in the nation.
New Jersey Together is a collection of progressive pastors and activists that supports eliminating mandatory minimums. In a Feb. 25 letter to Assembly members, the group says it reviewed a database of more than 36,000 people who are or have recently spent time in state prison. Black people are nearly four times as likely to spend time in state prison for official misconduct compared to white people, the group says.
The number of people behind bars for the charge is low, according to the group: 44 people are behind bars for official misconduct.
“To delay justice for thousands of people because of a disagreement about 44 people is utterly unacceptable,” the letter reads.
The Assembly is expected to vote on the bill Monday. It's not clear whether Gov. Phil Murphy, who has said he does not support including official misconduct, will sign or veto the bill.
Terrence T. McDonald is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.