Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s directive eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses comes in coordination with Gov. Phil Murphy vetoing a bill that would have done the same due to the inclusion of weakening penalties associated with 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 on April 19 in a press 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 (and) falls short because it does not offer relief for currently incarcerated individuals serving mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.”
In his first month in office in 2017, Murphy convened the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission headed by former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz. In November 2019, the commission released its first report that included the recommendations for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug and property crimes—both prospectively and for those who are currently serving sentences for these offenses.
As a result of the governor’s veto, Grewal issued a statewide directive instructing prosecutors to waive mandatory minimum prison terms for non-violent drug offenses for both current and past cases. Going forward, it directs prosecutors to waive the mandatory minimum terms associated with any non-violent drug offense under New Jersey law and when requested by an individual who remains in prison solely because of a mandatory minimum term for a non-violent drug offense, prosecutors are to file a joint application to rescind the mandatory period of parole ineligibility.
“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“This outdated policy is hurting our residents, and it’s disproportionately affecting our young men of color.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.”
“The Attorney General’s sweeping directive provides much-needed relief to those currently entangled in our criminal justice system,” added Murphy. “I remain hopeful that the Legislature will concur with my proposed revisions…which reflect the commission’s original recommendations, and that the Attorney General’s sweeping administrative change will be solidified in law.”
In August 2020, after the bill had passed the Assembly, an amendment was made to the State Senate version by State Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-32) that would eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for the crime of official misconduct. When the amended version made it through the full Senate, different versions of the bill had passed both houses.
In February 2021 a new version of the bill was introduced in both houses that eliminates mandatory minimums for crimes determined by the legislature to be of a non-violent nature. In addition to official misconduct, the bill encompasses a number of offenses not specified in the Commission’s recommendations, including other offenses dealing with misconduct committed by public employees and law enforcement.
Murphy said he was “particularly troubled” that the bill would eliminate mandatory prison time for elected officials who abuse their office for their own benefit, such as those who take bribes.
Weakening Corruption Laws
“New Jersey’s robust penalties against public corruption offenses…are often the most powerful tools that our prosecutors have to hold bad actors in law enforcement accountable,” stated Murphy. “At a time when our nation is finally reckoning with accountability for abusive policing practices, weakening the penalties used to address police misconduct would send exactly the wrong message.”
When Murphy first ran for office, as part of his social justice reform platform, he noted New Jersey had the largest racial disparity in incarceration rates in the nation—Black residents being incarcerated at 12 times the rate of white residents. Supporters of getting rid of the mandatory minimums pointed to the distinction as the result of decades of failed criminal justice policies, including the War on Drugs, that have devastated communities of color.
State officials noted in the last 18 months, a number of bills were drafted that implemented the recommendations of the commission and have moved through the legislative process to be signed into law. The move for the centerpiece of the commission’s report to be done with a directive by the Attorney General has the backing of its chair.
“In my view, Attorney General Grewal’s decision to issue a directive that is designed to reduce the effect of mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders, both prospectively and retroactively, is a substantial interim step that will provide immediate relief for persons serving or facing these sentences,” said former Chief Justice Poritz.