By Matt Friedman for Politico
Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday vetoed a bill that would do away with mandatory minimum prison terms for non-violent crimes, excising sections that would eliminate the sentences for corruption offenses.
At the same time, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a directive requiring that prosecutors make use of a provision in New Jersey law allowing them to set aside mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.
“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. Our representative democracy is based on the premise that our elected officials represent the interests of their constituents, not their own personal interests,” Murphy wrote in his veto message, which also took a shot at former President Donald Trump. “I cannot sign a bill into law that would undermine that premise and further erode our residents’ trust in our democratic form of government, particularly after four years of a presidential administration whose corruption was as pervasive as it was brazen.”
The two executive actions are the culmination of an eight-month political fight between the Murphy administration and the Democrat-controlled Legislature over what began as benign legislation that followed exactly the recommendations of the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing & Disposition Commission. The commission, in a November 2019 report, recommended eliminating mandatory sentences for a wide swath of mostly drug and property crimes with the aim of reducing racial disparities among the incarcerated.
Murphy’s conditional veto essentially returns the legislation, NJ S3456 (20R), to its initial form — which did not address corruption offenses — before state Sen. Nicholas Sacco began a successful effort to change it.
Grewal’s directive may help allay the concerns of criminal justice advocates who did not want to see mandatory minimum sentences upheld over a political fight, leading some to throw their support behind the legislative effort. The directive goes further than the legislation would have, applying retroactively to prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
The directive does not apply to mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent property crimes, and it was not immediately clear how many inmates are serving time under those laws.
“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,” Grewal said in a statement. “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.”
New Jersey Together, a coalition of criminal justice reform advocates, said in a statement that “ending mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes prospectively and for those currently incarcerated will be a huge step in the right direction.”
“Now, the work should begin with the governor and the Legislature to make this permanent and to end mandatory minimum sentencing as a whole,” the group said.
Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, said in a statement that even though Grewal’s directive takes “significant steps to mitigate the harms of some of the most problematic mandatory minimums,” his group is “disappointed” because “our state falls short by failing to enact legislation that can promote justice for thousands of New Jerseyans.”
Sinha urged the Legislature to concur with Murphy’s veto.
A spokesperson for the Senate did not immediately respond to request for comment on what action it will take.
Grewal’s directive allows prosecutors to seek periods of parole ineligibility “when warranted to protect public safety based on the specific facts of the case.”
Advocates have long sought to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, especially those that came about as part of the “War on Drugs.” For instance, New Jersey imposes harsh mandatory sentences for those caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, a crime far more likely to harshly punish dealers in denser urban areas and who are more likely to be Black and Hispanic.
At the time of a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project, New Jersey incarcerated white people at a rate of 94 per 100,000 compared to 1,140 for Black and 206 for Hispanic people.
A bill that mirrored the recommendations of the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing & Disposition Commission was nearing the final stages of the the legislative process when Sacco (D-Hudson) quietly requested an amendment to eliminate the mandatory minimum sentences for official misconduct.
Sacco later acknowledged to POLITICO that he requested the amendment. Walter Somick, the son of Sacco‘s longtime girlfriend, is facing several corruption-related charges, including official misconduct, over an alleged no-show job at the Department of Public Worker in North Bergen, where Sacco is mayor and runs a powerful political machine.
Official misconduct carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, and prosecutors have cited it as a valuable tool in securing plea agreements. It’s often been used against law enforcement officials, including eight corrections officers recently charged with abuse at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.
“Signing this bill into law would mean that these eight individuals would not necessarily face significant prison sentences even if convicted for their alleged crimes,” Murphy wrote in his veto message.
Sacco in previous statements said it should be up to a judge to decide what kind of sentence to impose for corruption crimes.
Sacco’s amendment stalled the initial bill in the Assembly. Its sponsor in the lower house, Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex), said she did not agree with it and later withdrew her sponsorship.
Assemblymember Nicholas Chiaravalloti and state Sen. Sandra Cunningham (both D-Hudson) introduced a new version in February 2021, this time exempting not only official misconduct from mandatory minimums but also theft by deception, commercial bribery, money laundering, perjury and tampering with public records. Somick also faces theft by deception and public records tampering charges.
The bill was then fast-tracked through both houses, and had sat on Murphy’s desk since March 1. Monday was his deadline to either act on it or allow it to become law without his signature.
“I am cognizant of the fact that Attorney General‘s directives could be changed in a future administration by the stroke of a pen, and thus recognize that there is still a need to permanently codify these changes in statute,” Murphy said. “I remain hopeful that the Legislature will concur with my proposed revisions, which reflect the Commission’s evidence-based recommendations and its desire that these recommendations apply prospectively and retroactively.”