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N.J. General Assembly passes bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent offenses

It was not immediately clear if Gov. Phil Murphy would sign the measure. A spokesperson said he would comment when he was ready to act.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

New Jersey’s General Assembly on Monday approved a measure that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, though it was unclear if Gov. Phil Murphy would sign it.

Although Murphy, a Democrat, has long advocated getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes, he said last year that he would not sign a bill that would eliminate such sentences for crimes of official misconduct, which this bill would.

The measure passed with a vote of 46 in favor, 20 against, and four abstentions.

Asked whether the governor would sign it into law, a spokesperson for Murphy said only: “We’ll have further comment when we’re ready to take action on the bill.”

Last month, the governor spoke of the “urgent need” to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug and property offenses. That would align with recommendations by the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which Murphy in 2018 directed to find ways to lessen the racial disparities of incarceration in the state.

New Jersey incarcerates Black people at a rate 12 times higher than white people, according to the nonprofit Sentencing Project. In his February statement, Murphy called that ratio “jarring.”

The bill, sponsored by State Sens. Sandra Cunningham (D., Hudson) and Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), passed the Senate last month, by a 23-14 vote. A companion bill was introduced in the General Assembly by Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, a Hudson County Democrat.

Before Monday’s vote, Chiaravalloti told the Assembly: “Nationally, there has been a bipartisan movement to eliminate mandatory minimums because they simply do not work. They have not proven to be a deterrent. And they disproportionately impact communities of color.”

The bill, “if signed by Governor Murphy, will serve as a national model for justice,” he said.

Assemblyman John DiMaio, a Warren County Republican, opposed the bill because it applied to the crime of official misconduct, saying, “I just do not understand where the social-justice issue comes in with elected people or public officials who are paid, who should be held to a higher standard.”

Richard McGrath, a spokesperson for Senate Democrats, said official misconduct was included in the bill as “part of the broader reform effort intended to bring greater fairness to the criminal justice system.”

He said mandatory minimum sentences were “ineffective and unfair, especially for nonviolent offenses” and that judges should be afforded greater discretion.

Advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the state’s Public Defender Office and New Jersey Together, a nonpartisan coalition of religious congregations, have pushed for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses.

New Jersey Together said it reviewed a database of more than 36,000 people who are or have recently spent time in state prison and found that Black people in New Jersey were three and a half times as likely to spend time in state prison for official misconduct as white people. Of the 36,000, only 86 people are or were incarcerated for crimes of official misconduct, and only 44 of those are still in state prison.

“To delay justice for thousands of people because of a disagreement about 44 people is utterly unacceptable,” the group wrote.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal shares the governor’s opposition to including official misconduct in the crimes for which mandatory minimum sentences would be eliminated. A spokesperson for Grewal said the attorney general “strongly opposes any effort to gut the laws designed to hold public officials and law enforcement officers accountable when they engage in misconduct.”