Mandatory Minimums

Governor Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed the mandatory minimum sentencing bill due to a poison bill. AG Gurbir Grewal issued a directive eliminating Mandatory Minimum sentences for Non-Violent Drug Offenses.

Grewal issued a statewide directive to law enforcement instructing prosecutors to waive mandatory parole disqualifiers, commonly known as mandatory minimum prison terms, for non-violent drug offenses, including cannabis.

Directive 2021-4 addresses both current and past cases. Prosecutors are to waive the mandatory minimum terms associated with any non-violent drug offense under New Jersey law. When an individual in prison solely because of a mandatory minimum term for a non-violent drug offense requests reconsideration, prosecutors will file a joint application to rescind the mandatory period of parole ineligibility.

“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.

The Directive takes mandatory minimum terms “off the table” for current and future non-violent drug defendants. It allows those currently incarcerated an opportunity for early release from custody.

“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 non-violent drug crimes,” said Attorney General Grewal. “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 This outdated policy is hurting our residents, and it’s disproportionately affecting our young men of color.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.”

Senator Nick Sacco (D-Hudson) has stalled the bill for several months after he inserted an exception for convicted corrupt officials.

The Governor’s conditional veto removes a series of provisions that would have weakened penalties associated with public corruption offenses, including official misconduct.

“We cannot stand by and ignore the unjust and racially disparate impact of these mandatory minimum terms on non-violent drug offenders, primarily young persons of color,” said Governor Phil Murphy. “It’s been well over a year since the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission unanimously concluded that these mandatory minimums must be eliminated, and still justice is delayed and denied.”

Mandatory Minimums Bill

Over the last year and a half, bills were drafted that implemented the Commission’s recommendations and moved through the legislative process, including several signed into law. However, the most significant recommendation of the report, eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent drug and property crimes, was the last to make it to the Governor’s desk.

The Commission’s recommendation to eliminate mandatory minimum terms for non-violent drug offenses received widespread support, including endorsement by the Governor, legislative leaders, the Public Defender, the Attorney General, and all 21 County Prosecutors. Mandatory minimum laws have fueled the significant increase in New Jersey’s prison population over the last four decades. They have also contributed to the stark racial disparities in the state’s prisons.

The Commission noted that Black residents constitute 14 percent of the state’s overall population, but 61 percent of its inmate population, with many serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

The Directive instructs prosecutors to enter into agreements in prospective cases and with previously sentenced individuals to rescind their mandatory minimums. With the Directive in place, a defendant will default to parole eligibility after serving one-third of the sentence imposed, the standard parole ineligibility period for most state crimes.

Prosecutors must meet the same standards in court that would have applied at the initial sentencing if there had been no mandatory minimum term.

This Directive will also take mandatory minimum sentences off the table for future non-violent drug offenses. As a result of the Attorney General’s actions, non-violent drug offenders who are in prison now or who will face the prospect of prison in the future will receive immediate and meaningful relief.

At a time when the nation is reckoning with accountability for abusive policing practices, weakening the penalties used to address police misconduct would send the wrong message Murphy noted.

“The Attorney General’s sweeping directive provides much-needed relief to those currently entangled in our criminal justice system,” Murphy added. “I remain hopeful that the Legislature will concur with my proposed revisions to S. 3456, which reflect the Commission’s original recommendations, and that the Attorney General’s sweeping administrative change will be solidified in law.”

“Our Black and Brown communities have suffered unjust treatment in the criminal justice system for far too long, from experiencing the effects of racially disparate policing to suffering from draconian sentencing laws,” said Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver. “Governor Murphy’s conditional veto paired with Attorney General Grewal’s Directive smartly eliminates mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses while preserving the penalties associated with public corruption that can be used to hold rogue public officials and employees accountable.  As our nation watches to see if Derek Chauvin will be held accountable, New Jersey cannot weaken the laws that prohibit law enforcement officers from abusing their position of authority.”

When Murphy first ran for office, he noted that New Jersey had the largest racial disparity in incarceration rates in the nation, with Black residents being incarcerated at 12 times the rate of whites.  The distinction results from decades of failed criminal justice policies, including the War on Drugs, that have devastated communities of color.

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