N.J. commission recommends ending mandatory minimum sentences
The recommendation also calls for lowering of other sentencing requirements in the name of criminal justice reform
Burlington County Times
TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy and the leaders of the New Jersey Legislature appear to be ready to enact more criminal justice reforms, including the elimination of mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes.
The elimination of minimum sentences for those crimes was among nine recommendations of the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, a bipartisan panel of legal experts, law enforcement and corrections officials convened by the governor last year to review the state's criminal penalties and sentencing laws.
The commission was created in 2009 but remained dormant during Republican Gov. Chris Christie's eight years in office. Murphy made reforming the commission one of his first acts as governor after he took office in 2018. Deborah Poritz, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, was named chair of the panel.
"When I took office I noted that our administration inherited a state where the disparity in incarceration rates among black and white individuals stood at a galling 12 to 1," Murphy said Thursday during a news conference at his Trenton offices.
"I do not want our state to have the widest racial disparity in incarceration in America. I want our state to lead the way for creating safe communities and neighborhoods through a criminal justice system that lives up to its all important words: justice," the governor added.
New Jersey still has the widest racial disparity in incarceration in the nation. Our criminal justice system needs to deliver true justice. I look forward to working with the Legislature to ensure that our new sentencing reform recommendations become law. https://nj.gov/governor/news/news/562019/approved/20191114a.shtmlPosted by Governor Phil Murphy on Friday, November 15, 2019
In addition to eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent drug and property crimes, the commission also recommended reducing the required minimum sentence for second-degree robbery and burglary offenses.
The crime carries between five to 10 years imprisonment and current law requires people convicted of the crimes to serve at least 85% of the sentence, the same amount mandated for murder and rape under the state's No Early Release Act. The commission wants to reduce that requirement to 50%.
The commission also called for making those changes retroactive, so that inmates currently serving prison terms for those offenses can apply for early release.
Some of the other proposed changes include creating a "compassionate release" program for inmates with terminal illnesses, as well as the opportunity for re-sentencing for juvenile offenders who were sentenced as adults to long prison terms.
All the recommended changes will require legislation to be introduced and approved by both chambers of the Legislature before the governor can sign them into law. However, Murphy said he was encouraged that both Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin were endorsing the recommendations.
Both legislative leaders joined Murphy at the news conference and both spoke in favor of the changes.
"This is long past due," Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, said. "It's 2019 and we're destroying people."
Coughlin, D-19 of Fords, also spoke favorably of the recommendations, though he wasn't ready to commit to Murphy's initial suggestion that the bills should be approved before the end of the current legislative session ends in January.
"The devil is in the details," he said in response to reporters' questions about a possible timeline.
Murphy clarified that he hoped the recommendations would be introduced as bills and approved "as soon as possible."
The governor also said the commission would remain active and likely make recommendations annually.
"This is not a one-off," he said.