A sentencing reform bill meant to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders has been stalled in Trenton because an amendment was added giving a similar break in sentencing to public officials convicted of corruption-related counts.
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. But in the State Senate, North Bergen Sen. Nicholas Sacco helped push through an amendment to cut mandatory minimums when it came to the separate issue of official misconduct.
Deputy Assembly Speaker Benjie Wimberly says the original bill was meant to help address “racial disparities” in sentencing.
“The bill’s intent was pretty clear – unjust sentences that affect the Black and brown community,” Wimberly said. “I just don’t know how that (public corruption) amendment fits in with this bill.”
With the senate version and assembly version at odds as to whether public officials and staffers deserve a break on mandatory minimum sentencing, the political leaders in Trenton said the reform bill is effectively dead.
Governor Phil Murphy voiced his anger over the delay in sentencing reform because of the late public corruption add-on – saying it should not be part of this original bill.
“Thousands of folks, overwhelming persons of color, in our criminal justice system that are being kept there because this bill is not moving,” Murphy said.
Politico NJ first reported Sacco, a Democrat, added the amendment as his girlfriend’s son, Walter Somick, has 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 denies his motives are personal. Sacco said he supports sentencing reform for low-level offenders but that official misconduct charges also should not have mandatory minimums.
In a statement through spokesman Phil Swibinski, Sacco said adding official misconduct to the list of sentencing reforms makes the entire bill stronger. He said cases should be “based on the severity of each individual case,” and that “sentencing be made by a judge, not legislators.”
The statement also said that “mandatory minimums often lead to unfairly harsh sentences for first time offenders and people with no other criminal history."
Sacco pointed to a past case in North Bergen where the Department of Public Works received what he called a severe sentence on official misconduct counts, even though that worker was a first time offender.
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.
Gov. Murphy 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.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who has clashed with the Governor, did not return requests for comment about the state senate’s public corruption amendment.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal re-issued a statement saying he supports ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug crimes, but “sees no reason to eliminate our state’s mandatory penalties for terrorists, rapists, and corrupt politicians.”
Deputy Speaker Wimberly said he hopes the original bill can be salvaged, but said the public corruption piece will likely destroy any chances of sentencing reform.
“It’s something that if its going to be reintroduced, then we have to go back to committee and be reintroduced and heard in committee and go back to the floor. It will be a whole other process," Wimberly said.