Prosecutors in New Jersey will waive mandatory minimum prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses under a new directive announced Monday by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Gov. Phil Murphy applauded Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal’s directive, which came on the same day Murphy conditionally vetoed a bill passed by the General Assembly last month that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, including those convicted of public corruption offenses such as official misconduct.
Murphy said he was sending the bill back with recommendations for reconsideration.
“During our year-and-a-half-long push to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent 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,” Murphy said in a statement. “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.”
Murphy, a Democrat, has long advocated getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes, but said last year he would not sign a bill that would eliminate such sentences for crimes of official misconduct.
Grewal has said he 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.”
Grewal’s directive applies to current cases as well as previously adjudicated ones. For existing convictions in which someone remains in prison solely because of a mandatory minimum term for a nonviolent drug offense, prosecutors will seek to cancel the mandatory period of imprisonment, allowing the opportunity for early release, the Attorney General’s Office said.
In Pennsylvania, there are no mandatory minimum prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses, said Greg Rowe, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
Rowe said many mandatory minimum sentences were eliminated in Pennsylvania in 2015 as the result of a state Supreme Court decision. As a consequence, crimes like drug trafficking and possession with the intent to deliver drugs do not carry a mandatory minimum sentence.
Eric Sterling, the retired executive director for the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, said there has been a trend nationwide since the 2000s to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
“There’s the tension between a residual crackdown rhetoric and a contemporary awareness that the circumstances of different offenders vary so significantly that a mandatory sentence crudely based on just quantity [of drugs] can often result in an unjust outcome,” Sterling said, adding that states with Democratic-controlled legislatures are more likely to repeal mandatory minimum sentences.
In California, a bill that would end mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses passed the Senate earlier this month and is now before the State Assembly.
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 in the state.
In a statement Monday, ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha praised Grewal’s directive and expressed disappointment in Murphy’s conditional veto.
Grewal’s directive “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,” Sinha said. “Still, our state falls short by failing to enact legislation that can promote justice for thousands of New Jerseyans, disproportionately Black and brown people.”
New Jersey Together said in a statement: “Ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent 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.”