New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed a sentencing reform bill on Monday meant to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.
The governor vetoed the bill because of an amendment added giving a similar break in sentencing to public officials convicted of corruption-related counts. The amendment was added on in late summer of 2020 and seemed to kill the bill by the fall with both chambers at odds.
“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,” Murphy stated Monday.
The original bill passed the state assembly with the goal of reducing incarceration rates for non-violent offenders convicted of drug and property crimes, many of whom are Black or Latino, at the recommendation of the state's Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission. The legislation also fails to offer relief for non-violent drug offenders currently serving mandatory minimums, Murphy said.
The state's attorney general, however, issued a sweeping directive at the same time Monday that effectively eliminates most mandatory minimum sentences.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal's directive instructs prosecutors to waive mandatory minimum terms "associated with any non-violent drug offense" under state law.
The change means that the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences will be “off the table” for current and future non-violent drug offenders, and it allows those currently serving such sentences a chance for early release.
“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 This outdated policy is hurting our residents, and it’s disproportionately affecting our young men of color.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," Grewal said Monday.
State law requires a sentencing judge to impose longer periods of parole ineligibility for dozens of state crimes, including — before Monday — non-violent drug offenses. The mandatory minimum sentences depend on the offense and are a percentage of the total sentence, going from 33% to 85%. Those sentenced for those crimes must serve the parole ineligibility period in prison.
Grewal said existing state law grants prosecutors the authority to waive the mandatory minimum terms.
"My decision to return the bill on my desk to reflect the Commission’s recommendations is made substantially easier because of Attorney General Grewal’s strong action to stop these unfair prison sentences," Murphy added.
The governor's conditional veto now sends the bill back to Trenton, where lawmakers can try to override Murphy's veto or pass it with his recommendations.
The controversial amendment to cut mandatory minimums when it came to the separate issue of official misconduct was pushed through in the State Senate by North Bergen Sen. Nicholas Sacco.
Sacco, a Democrat, added the amendment as his girlfriend’s son, Walter Somick, had been fighting official misconduct charges amid no-show job allegations in North Bergen. In addition to serving as state senator, Sacco is also the Mayor of North Bergen.
Sacco previously denied his motives were personal. Sacco said he supported sentencing reform for low-level offenders but that official misconduct charges also should not have mandatory minimums.
Sacco himself has been at the center of controversies ranging from allegations of corruption at the North Bergen Housing Authority to allegations of abuse of power during his years at City Hall and previously in his role as a supervisor in the North Bergen Board of Education. Sacco denies any wrongdoing.
Murphy had declined to name any specific official to blame for the hold up in the sentencing reform bill. Sacco has been a major supporter of the governor and the two have seen together at press conferences and various events over the years.