Measure, poised to clear Assembly, may see Murphy’s veto pen

By Nikita Biryukov for The New Jersey Globe

February 25, 2021

A multifaith coalition urged the Assembly to pass a bill revoking mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for a series of drug and property crimes that replaced a previous bill whose path through the legislature was upended by the inclusion of official misconduct.

“If you do so, we will celebrate your decision as the win for racial equity and criminal justice reform that it is,” the 42 faith leaders who make up New Jersey Together said in a letter to the Assembly.

The bill cleared the Senate in a 23-14 vote on Monday and is due for a vote before the full Assembly on March 1. The Assembly Appropriations Committee on Wednesday advanced the bill in a 7-2 vote with one abstention. One Republican, Assemblyman Antwan McClellan (R-Ocean City) voted in its favor.

The faith leaders argued the bill was needed despite the inclusion of official misconduct because even that crime was enforced unequally along racial lines.

A New Jersey Together analysis of more than 36,000 incarcerated or recently incarcerated individuals found Black residents were disproportionately likely to be jailed for official misconduct.

The analysis found 32 of the 86 people incarcerated for official misconduct were Black, while 40 were white. Per census figures, roughly 15% of new Jersey Residents are black, but they accounted for about 37% of official misconduct incarcerations.

White residents, meanwhile, made up about 49% of official misconduct jailings while accounting for almost 72% of the state’s population.

The bill largely resembles a previous measure that, on the recommendation of the New Jersey Sentencing and Criminal Disposition Commission, eliminated minimum sentencing for crimes like possession and burglary, among others.

That proposal saw its path through the legislature upended after State Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen) amended it to include official misconduct.

The original bill’s sponsors, State Sens. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) and Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Perth Amboy), each said, at the time, they did not know who was responsible for the amendment.

Politico New Jersey later reported Walter Somick, the son of Sacco’s longtime girlfriend, faced an official misconduct charge.

Lopez has since backed away from the bill, and Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Bayonne) has taken up the mantle of sponsor.

“We are worried that political disagreements will end what could be a meaningful victory for justice in our state, but time is running out,” the faith leaders said in their letter to Assembly members.

The bill appears poised to pass the Assembly, but Gov. Phil Murphy, who opposed the inclusion of official misconduct in the original bill, has suggested he could strike the bill.

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