TRENTON — Major changes could be coming to criminal sentencing in New Jersey, under recommendations issued Thursday by a state commission and quickly endorsed by top state officials.

Among the suggestions is that New Jersey end mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes and reduce them for second-degree robbery and burglary. The changes could be made retroactively, clearing a path for thousands of inmates to petition for their release from prison.

“Our current mandatory minimum laws for these nonviolent offenses reflect the harsh, inflexible and often misguided mindset of the 1980s’ so-called war on drugs,” Gov. Phil Murphy said. “They haven’t served the cause of justice. They have devastated the lives of too many individuals and families, mostly people of color, and it’s past time that they are retired.”

Murphy discussed the report at a news conference where he was joined by legislative leaders and predicted that “much of this work” can be enacted in the next two months, before the current session expires in January.

“It is a celebration that we’re going to do away with the old time of ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key.’ That these are lives that are being impacted,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “This is long past due. It’s 2019 and we’re destroying people. People that made mistakes. They’re not criminals, they’re people that made mistakes.”

“The term ‘justice for all’ shouldn’t be something we throw around willy-nilly. It should be a guiding principle,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex. “And today we take a step forward to making sure that that is in fact a reality in the state of New Jersey.”

The Criminal Sentencing & Disposition Commission was formed by a 2009 law but left dormant until 2018.

In its report, it also recommends a new mitigating factor that would allow sentencing judges to consider a defendant’s youth; an expansion of the ‘compassionate release’ program for older, ill inmates; the possibility of release for offenders sentenced to 30 years or more as juveniles; and improving data collection abilities in the Department of Corrections.

“We all, every one of us, abhor the mass incarceration created by policy decisions in the United States and in New Jersey. We all understand the need for reform,” said Deborah Poritz, a retired Supreme Court chief justice and the commission’s chairwoman.

“While the primary purpose of this group was not to reduce the population per se, I’m here to tell you that if you implement sound criminal justice policy that that will be a consequence. That’s something that we are definitely looking forward to,” said acting Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks.

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Murphy said the proposals would help change a “galling” statistic – that New Jersey has the nation’s largest racial disparity in its incarceration rates, with black people 12 times more likely than whites to be locked up.

“We have a terminology, and we say: Justice must mean just us,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver. “I think today we are reversing that trend.”

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at

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