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State Sen. Sandra Cunningham. Photo by Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe

Cunningham, Scutari reintroduce mandatory minimums bill

Senators signal they won’t concur with governor’s veto, but it’s not clear the bill has a path to becoming law

By Nikita Biryukov, April 19 2021 4:00 pm

This article was updated with comment from Senate President Steve Sweeney at 5:02 p.m.

Two Democratic state senators reintroduced a bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for a series of non-violent drug and public trust crimes hours after Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed it over the inclusion of official misconduct and related offenses Monday.

The measure is identical to the bill Murphy vetoed Monday and is an early sign that Democratic legislators in the upper chamber are unlikely to concur with the governor’s version of the bill, which removed sentencing guideline changes for official misconduct, certain types bribery and document tampering, among other things.

But it’s not quite a promise of a standoff between Murphy and the Senate.

“It would seem, but that’s not a decision that I make by myself,” State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), the bill’s second prime sponsor, said when asked if the bill’s reintroduction meant no concurrence would be forthcoming. “The Senate president obviously is going to have to weigh in on that.”

State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City), the bill’s first prime sponsor and a member of the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, upon whose recommendations an earlier mandatory minimums bill was based, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Alongside the governor’s conditional veto, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a directive ordering prosecutors to waive mandatory parole disqualifiers in non-violent drug cases in an attempt circumvent mandatory sentencing guidelines for such offenses.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) last week declined to say how his chamber would respond to Monday’s widely expected conditional veto. On Monday, he gave tepid support for Grewals directive while urging the passage of the identical mandatory minimums bill introduced at the day’s quorum.

“I welcome the Attorney General’s action as a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it falls far short of the goal of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all nonviolent offenses,” he said. “The directive covers only six offenses, while the reform legislation introduced today by Senator Sandra Cunningham and Senator Nick Scutari encompasses 29 nonviolent crimes. The AG’s action also comes up short because it could be overturned by a future AG.”

Absent any changes, the bill isn’t likely to make it into law. The Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission did not recommend the removal of mandatory minimums for official misconduct and its related offenses, and their inclusion in the bill has been opposed by Murphy and Grewal, who whipped county prosecutors against the measure last month.

But Cunningham is hoping time might change Murphy’s mind.

“We want to give the Governor the opportunity to fully appreciate the importance of this reform and reconsider his action,” she said in a statement. “This is the same bill but we hope the Governor will act differently when it gets to his desk.”

The bill’s path through the legislature was upended after State Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen) amended an earlier version to remove mandatory minimums for official misconduct, which in New Jersey carries a penalty of at least five years imprisonment.

Murphy balked, saying the change went against the commission’s recommendations.

“New Jersey is lagging behind the rest of the nation in criminal justice reform, as evidenced by the fact that 48 other states do not impose mandatory minimums for official misconduct and similar offenses, which New Jersey will still do despite the directive from the Attorney General which may not even pass legal muster,” Sacco said in a statement Monday.

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