TRENTON — A new version of stalled legislation that would end mandatory minimum sentences now applies to all nonviolent offenses – including official misconduct, which had held up the previous version of the plan.

The state Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission had recommended lifting mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes, though not public corruption often charged as official misconduct. When that got added to the last bill, some balked – in part because bill sponsor Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, has a personal connection to someone facing that charge.

Gov. Phil Murphy opposed that amendment but has pushed for the broader bill, which in its latest incarnation is no longer sponsored by Sacco.

“Sentencing reforms are a crucial piece of the greater effort to bring more social justice to the legal system and to society,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, who served on the commission.

“As we continue to bring more fairness to the justice system we must move away from imposing lengthy sentences for minor offenses and tying the hands of judges,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“At the end of the day, the judge in the case is in the best position to understand the unique facts to determine what the individual’s punishment should be,” said Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson, who plans to introduce a companion bill. “Mandatory minimums are a way for politicians to look like they’re tough on crime. We’re not in the courtroom, and we should defer to the judges.”

High cost of locking up non-violent offenders

Al-Tariq Witcher of New Jersey Together said sentencing reform has a wide range of support across the political spectrum, from President Joe Biden to the Koch brothers. He said the bill could go further and include second-degree burglary and robbery, as the sentencing commission recommended.

“I want our state to move towards the bipartisan consensus of states, organizations and legislatures in favor of ending mandatory minimum sentences for all nonviolent offenses,” Witcher said.

Witcher said he was sentenced to prison for drug distribution but the amount he possessed was a small amount, particularly given his long history with substance abuse.

“It means that my 10-year mandatory minimum sentence cost taxpayers more than $600,000 – more than a half a million dollars in taxpayer money just for my 2.3 grams of cocaine,” Witcher said.

“The time for action is now. Well, no, it was actually years ago,” he said. “Tens of thousands of men and women like me have gone to state prison under sentencing rules that experts have long agreed are unjust.”

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Giving judges discretion

Sanjay Chaudhari of Cannabis Wars Alliance tied the issue back to the debate about marijuana legalization and, specifically, whether people should be able to grow marijuana at home for their personal use.

“Right now, even if a patient in New Jersey were growing 10 plants, which is not a tremendous amount of plants to be growing, it would still be a mandatory sentence of 10 to 20 years with a mandatory minimum of one-third of that sentence,” Chaudhari said. “So even if a patient is growing something that they’re prescribed to grow, that we now have a constitutional right in New Jersey to have, it could be four, five years in prison mandatory.”

“There is separation of power for a reason. We need to be able to let the judges be judges and not handcuff and not dictate the ability of the judges to do what they feel is right,” he said.

What's next for marijuana legalization?

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the mandatory minimum legislation Tuesday.

It was scheduled to take up the latest changes to marijuana legalization, focused on how to handle minors who possess the drug, but that vote was scrapped because agreement on the bill still hasn’t been reached. The committee will meet Wednesday afternoon, in hopes of having the full Legislature approve the latest changes Friday morning.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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