The Assembly cleared a bill eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for a series of drug and property crimes, but the bill appears headed for a veto over its inclusion of official misconduct and related corruption offenses.
They passed the bill by a 46-20 margin with four abstentions.
“Mandatory minimum sentences are the greatest single engine for injustice that I know,” longtime criminal defense lawyer Joe Hayden said. “And I further believe there’s no rational or just reason to exclude public officials from the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences. For years it never existed, and although public officials are not entitled to special treatment, they also are not second class citizens.”
The bill largely resembles a previous measure that, on the recommendation of the New Jersey Sentencing and Criminal Disposition Commission, eliminated minimum sentencing for crimes like possession and burglary, among others.
The measure was meant to address race-based sentencing disparities, but its path through the legislature was upended after State Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen) amended it to include official misconduct.
The original bill’s sponsors, State Sens. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) and Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Perth Amboy), each said, at the time, they did not know who was responsible for the amendment.
Sacco said that the bill “will correct many of the disparities and unfair treatment that unfortunately exist in our state when it comes to how cases are prosecuted and justice is applied.”
“Removing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses does not mean lesser penalties for offenders, it means that the punishment will once again fit the crime and we will allow judges to exercise discretion and make the appropriate sentencing decision that each individual case demands,” Sacco said.
Politico New Jersey later reported Walter Somick, the son of Sacco’s longtime girlfriend, faced an official misconduct charge.
Lopez has since backed away from the bill, and Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Bayonne) has taken up the mantle of sponsor.
Though Gov. Phil Murphy backed the original bill, he balked over the inclusion of official misconduct. He has not said in plain terms how he plans to act on the new version but has signaled an intent to veto it.
“My basic place is still where it’s been,” he said last month.
Advocacy groups, including the inter-faith coalition New Jersey Together, have continued to support the amended measure, arguing that even official misconduct was applied unequally along racial lines.
The bill last week cleared the Senate in a 23-14 vote.