Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a directive ordering prosecutors to waive mandatory parole disqualifiers in non-violent drug cases in an attempt to circumvent the state’s mandatory minimum sentences following a conditional veto issued by Gov. Phil Murphy Monday.
The governor on Monday conditionally vetoed a bill that would have eliminated mandatory minimums for a series of non-violent drug and property crimes, as well as a group of offenses to the public trust.
Murphy’s veto is a response to the latter category, which was not included in reforms recommended in the 2019 Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission report that spurred action on mandatory minimums.
“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,” Grewal said. “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 This outdated policy is hurting our residents, and it’s disproportionately affecting our young men of color.”
The directive will apply to current and past cases, requiring prosecutors to waive mandatory term minimums related to non-violent drug crimes and allows those imprisoned solely for such a crime to request prosecutors file a joint application for parole eligibility usually barred under mandatory sentencing guidelines.
State law allows prosecutors to waive mandatory parole ineligibility periods for drug offenses, the Attorney General’s office said, though the order allows prosecutors to continue seeking parole ineligibility when they believe it is necessary.
“This directive will also take mandatory minimum sentences off the table for future non-violent drug offenses,” Murphy said. As a result of the Attorney General’s actions, non-violent drug offenders who are in prison now or who will face the prospect of prison in the future will receive immediate and meaningful relief.”
The conditional veto eliminates sentence reductions for the public trust offenses and reinserts reductions for a series of property crimes, including burglary. It also adds language to allow those already convicted of applicable crimes to apply for their parole ineligibility to be waived.
The County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey in March urged Murphy to veto the bill over its proposed removal of mandatory minimum sentences for crimes against the public trust, including official misconduct, after a push from Grewal.
Murphy balked when State Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen) amended a previous version of the bill to also remove minimum sentences for official misconduct.
That bill stalled after Murphy signaled his opposition, but lawmakers adopted a new version that eliminated sentencing guidelines for a greater number of crimes against the public trust, including certain bribery charges and document tampering, among others.
“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 said in a statement Monday. “The legislation also falls short because it does not offer relief for currently incarcerated individuals serving mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.”
The bill, sent to the governor’s desk on March 1, sat there without a signature for more than 45 days. It would have become law without his signature at noon on Monday, when the Senate was scheduled to hold its first quorum since March.
In New Jersey, bills that sit on the governor’s desk for 45 days become law when the chamber they originated in next meets for a quorum.
It’s not clear how legislators will respond to the veto, which was widely expected. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) last week declined to say how his chamber would act if the bill was struck.
The bill cleared both chambers of the legislature in tight votes along party lines, and it’s not likely legislators will be able — or willing — to override the governor’s veto.
It’s unclear whether they’ll be willing to move a mandatory minimums bill that doesn’t include reductions for official misconduct and related charges.
The maneuver was met with some dismay by activists, including the New Jersey branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose executive director was disappointed by the governor’s veto but urged lawmakers to concur with it anyway.
“Our state falls short by failing to enact legislation that can promote justice for thousands of New Jerseyans, disproportionately Black and brown people,” Amol Sinha said. “In order to make sure people can escape some of the injustices of mandatory minimums, we strongly urge the Legislature to approve the Governor’s conditional veto and to pass S2593, which makes the changes from S3456 retroactive, to codify what the Attorney General achieves through the new directive.”