Murphy, NJ Democrats squabble over mandatory minimums after veto

New Jersey
Phil Murphy

FILE – In this Dec. 15, 2020 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during a news conference after witnessing the first coronavirus vaccinations at University Hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, N.J. While Murphy has pledged to be transparent throughout the coronavirus pandemic, his administration has denied or slowly responded to requests for records related to spending, communications and decision-making.(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Phil Murphy and Democrats in the New Jersey legislature remain in disagreement over a bill that would end mandatory minimum sentencing for all non-violent offenders in the state.

The original bill, S-3456/A-5385, would have eliminated all mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent crimes. The bill was introduced in early February and passed both the Democrat-controlled State Assembly (by a 46-23 margin) and State Senate (23-14) by early March.

Gov. Murphy vetoed the bill Monday, while accepting a directive from Attorney General Gurbir Grewal that would tell prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimums for non-violent drug-related offenses, but not any others.

The governor, in a statement, claimed his decision was made because he believes there should be mandatory minimums for things like political corruption.

“During our year-and-a-half-long push to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug and property crimes, the legislation was amended in a way that would have eliminated mandatory prison sentences for a number of public corruption offenses, including official misconduct,” said Murphy. “After much deliberation, I have determined that I cannot sign this bill, which goes far beyond the recommendations of the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission. The legislation also falls short because it does not offer relief for currently incarcerated individuals serving mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.”

In his statement, Murphy included supportive opinions from Lt. Gov. Shiela Oliver, public defenders, social justice advocates president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

Grewal said two years ago he wanted to do away with mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, something he claims to have accomplished through this directive.

“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.”

Murphy’s displeasure with the bill appears to stem from when Sen. Nicholas Sacco quietly added an amendment to the bill eliminating mandatory minimums sentences for official misconduct, according to the Star-Ledger. Sacco’s girlfriend’s son faces a misconduct charge for allegedly submitting false timesheets in North Bergen, a town where Sacco is the mayor.

Sen. Sacco responded to the decision in a Twitter thread.

“I have long been opposed to mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and am extremely disappointed in Gov. Murphy’s actions, which not only fail to fully address racial disparities in our criminal justice system but also jeopardize

The state senate has responded to Gov. Murphy’s decision by simply re-introducing a version of the original bill, now known as S-3658.

Senate President Steve Sweeney said in a statement that Grewal’s directive didn’t go far enough.

“I welcome the attorney general’s action as a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it falls far short of the goal of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all nonviolent offenses,” Sweeney said. “The directive covers only six offenses, while the reform legislation introduced today by Senator Sandra Cunningham and Sen. Nick Scutari encompasses 29 nonviolent crimes. The AG’s action also comes up short because it could be overturned by a future AG.”

The New Jersey division of the American Civil Liberties Union also criticized the veto.

“Mandatory minimums have been a tool of injustice for decades, and S-3456 takes important steps to limit them,” ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha said in a statement. “The directive issued today by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal takes significant steps to mitigate the harms of some of the most problematic mandatory minimums, and importantly provides relief for those currently incarcerated because of unjust mandatory sentences. Still, our state falls short by failing to enact legislation that can promote justice for thousands of New Jerseyans, disproportionately Black and brown people.”

Scutari and State Sen. Sandra Cunningham listed several organizations in support of their bill upon reintroduction, including the State Bar Association, New Jersey Together, a coalition of more than 50 religious congregations and non-profits, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and FAMM, a national organization committed to a fairer and more effective justice system.

“I want the governor to fully understand that by removing mandatory minimums on non-violent offenses we can return the discretionary power to our judges and allow them to issue sentences that are in the best interest of justice,” said Scutari, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who also serves as a municipal prosecutor. “Mandatory minimums are a sad legacy of an era that created laws that were discriminatory and ineffective. If we are going to end racial disparities in our criminal justice system we have to bring an end to mandatory minimums. Other states that enacted similar legislation have experienced a decline in crime rates and a significant reduction in costs.”

The bill has yet to be reintroduced in the state assembly.

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