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Senate President Steve Sweeney. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe)

Official misconduct amendment still has mandatory minimums bill in limbo

Sweeney floats keeping minimum sentencing guidelines in place for elected officials

By Nikita Biryukov, December 14 2020 4:18 pm

The New Jersey State Bar Association’s endorsement of a bill that would strike mandatory minimum sentences for a series of offenses hasn’t immediately shifted the thinking among Trenton Democrats who backed the measure or hesitated to do so.

“I continue to be where I’ve been on this,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday.

The bill, at first widely supported by Democrats, was effectively killed in August after State Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen) surreptitiously amended the bill to remove mandatory minimums for official misconduct.

That measure and a piece of companion legislation that would apply the sentencing changes retroactively to those already sentenced passed the Assembly in July but have since languished.

The lower chamber hasn’t backed the amended versions — a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) on Monday said he was reviewing the legislation — and Murphy has, repeatedly, made his opposition to the official misconduct amendment known.

“It was not part of the recommendations, and that was not the spirit of the commission,” he said, referring to the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, on whose recommendations the original bill was based. “So again, I’m happy to have a conversation about it, but boy, I would like to see this happen as it was intended to happen.”

Democratic senators, meanwhile, have stuck by the bill in its current form, opting to let it languish instead of pulling Sacco’s amendments.

“If someone is hired by the county and they make a dumb decision, I think it’s right for a judge to decide whether it should be, how severe it should be and how long it should be,” Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) said.

Some in the upper chamber were heartened by the Bar Association’s backing of the bill. Other groups, including the Coalition of Latino Clergy, have also come to support it publicly, warning that the harm done by keeping the other mandatory minimums in place would do more harm than changing sentencing guideline for official misconduct.

The commission found the state’s sentencing guidelines disproportionately impacted its non-white residents, a fact that some lawmakers pointed to when urging the bill’s passage.

“I think we need to resolve it,” State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) said. “We need to take the politics out of it, but if black and brown individuals and poor individuals have been affected by this, it needs to be resolved.

But the bill may still see changes before coming up for another vote.

Sweeney on Monday suggested he would back a version of the bill that kept mandatory minimums in place for official misconduct committed by elected officials.

“Like I said, I think the judge should decide everything, but if you want to segregate me, that’s fine,” the Senate president said.

Murphy declined to say whether he’d look upon such a proposal with a more favorable eye, citing an oft-ignored rule to defer comment on pending legislation.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) wasn’t read to back such a measure—he said he’d first need to speak with Sweeney—but he continued to favor giving the state’s judges wide latitude on sentencing.

“I think that’s why we give these ladies and gentlemen the robe and the power to decide what the sentences should be,” Scutari said. “We don’t have to tell them. They can decide. If its egregious conduct, they’ll give them a pretty big sentence. If it’s not, then they have the latitude to not.”

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