LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Sentencing commission calls for end of mandatory sentences for some crimes

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

A once-moribund advisory panel that was reinvigorated by Gov. Phil Murphy to study racial and ethnic disparities in the state criminal justice system issued its report Thursday, calling for the elimination of mandatory sentences for those convicted of non-violent drug and property crimes.

The 13 member New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission — chaired by retired state Supreme Court Justice Deborah Poritz — also recommended that those still incarcerated under such sentences be allowed to apply for early release. In addition, the group is urging lawmakers to adopt a new mitigating sentencing factor for young offenders, as well as a “compassionate release” program for those sentenced to terms of 30 years or more as juveniles.

The commission, which includes designees of senior lawmakers on both political parties, reached its conclusions unanimously, according to the report.

“The Commission’s recommendations … reflect a consensus-driven, policy making process that incorporates a wide range of perspectives, including those of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, community stakeholders, corrections officials, faith organizations, and victims’ rights advocates,” the report reads.

Murphy on Thursday hailed the work of the commission, and urged the Legislature to put the reforms into bills during the current lame duck session, noting that he will sign them.

“This is a comprehensive set of reforms. They will ensure the criminal justice system not only works, but works better and for all communities,” he said. “They meet the call of justice but also our broader goal of fairness.”

State Senate President Steve Sweeney called the recommendations in the report “a long-time overdue.”

“It’s 2019 and we’re destroying people,” the south Jersey Democrat said. “People that made mistakes, they’re not criminals. They’re people that made mistakes. But we turn them into criminals if we keep them in jail for a long period of time.”

The commission was initially created by Gov. Jon Corzine a decade ago, but his successor, Chris Christie never made any appointments and the group did not meet. Murphy jump-started the effort in February of last year, a month after he took office, noting that New Jersey “has the nation’s worst disparity in the rates of incarceration between black and white offenders” and that, “We can and must do better.”

The report also recommends a loosening of sentencing restrictions for two more serious crimes, second-degree robbery and second-degree burglary, which currently fall in a classification alongside offenses like murder, carjacking and aggravated arson. According to the report, both offenses are frequently charged even though they incorporate a broad range of conduct, including that which results in no physical injury to the victim.

Under the commission’s recommendation, the period of parole ineligibility for those convicted of such crimes would be reduced to half the sentence, down from the current 85%.

The commission said it was hoped its recommendations would “replicate the success” of the state’s recent bail reform initiative, in which monetary bail was largely replaced by an assessment of whether someone charged with a crime was likely to show up in court or be a danger to the community if released.

The commission will continue to meet and plans to issue a “series of recommendations for similarly significant reforms intended to promote justice and build public confidence in our criminal justice system,” according to the report issued Thursday.