Attorney General Grewal: It’s time to end mandatory minimums for non-violent drug crimes

Posted Jul 15, 2019

By Gurbir S. Grewal


One of the first lessons I learned as a young prosecutor was also one of the most important: that our success is measured not by the number of people we convict, or the length of the prison sentences we obtain, but by whether justice is done in each and every case.

It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me during my time as a federal prosecutor, as the Bergen County prosecutor, and now as New Jersey’s attorney general. And as I reflected on that lesson, it led me to a simple conclusion: the time has come for our state to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

It’s helpful to understand how we got here. In 1987, at the height of America’s “War on Drugs,” New Jersey followed the lead of other states and enacted laws requiring strict mandatory prison terms for certain drug crimes. Well-intentioned as they may have been, the laws didn’t do a particularly good job of distinguishing between high-level traffickers and street-corner dealers, and over the past three decades, tens of thousands of New Jersey residents have been subject to their broad reach.

Most problematic are the provisions that automatically render certain offenders ineligible for parole for long portions of their prison sentences, effectively forcing the state to keep even non-violent inmates locked up long after it’s clear they no longer pose a threat to the community.

This harsh approach comes with real costs. Every dollar New Jersey spends imprisoning non-violent drug offenders for longer than necessary is a dollar we’re not spending on crime prevention, addiction treatment, or reentry efforts. But more importantly, these drug laws have had devastating social costs, especially in our African-American communities, which have borne the brunt of New Jersey’s mandatory drug sentences.

In recent years, states across the country have come to realize the problems with their 80s-era drug laws, and many of them, including Texas, South Carolina, and Indiana, have passed sweeping reforms. Study after study has shown these reforms effectively reduced state prison populations — and did so without prompting a rise in crime rates. Yet even as New Jersey became a national leader in bail reform and other social justice causes, we’ve only nibbled around the edges of our mandatory drug sentencing laws. It’s time for that to change.

It’s not that all mandatory minimum sentences are ill-conceived. In New Jersey, we require judges to impose prison terms for a handful of other serious crimes — mostly offenses involving violence, illegal gun use, child sex abuse, and official misconduct — and I see no need to eliminate our state’s mandatory penalties for terrorists, rapists, and corrupt politicians.

And we will continue to aggressively pursue the most violent and dangerous drug criminals — like those operating the deadly opioid mills we recently dismantled in Harrison and Irvington. But that doesn’t mean we can’t recalibrate our sentencing laws when it comes to the mostly young, mostly minority non-violent drug offenders who fill our state prisons.

We should also consider other sensible sentencing reforms that would promote a more humane criminal justice system. We could end mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent property offenses, like shoplifting, that suffer from many of the same problems as mandatory sentences for drug crimes. We could expand our state’s “compassionate release” program, which would allow elderly and terminally ill inmates to seek release from prison if they can show they are unlikely to reoffend.

We could create new pathways for inmates to petition for sentence reductions if they can show they’ve enrolled in prison education programs, completed their rehabilitation and demonstrated their readiness to reenter society. And we could build statutory mechanisms to ensure that any cost-savings these programs generate by reducing state prison populations are reinvested in public safety and community engagement initiatives.

These types of reforms aren’t possible without legislative action, and I am particularly proud of Governor Phil Murphy — a true advocate of progressive change — for reconstituting the long-dormant Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission to study potential reforms and make recommendations for new laws.

That commission, which includes representatives from my office and is operating under the leadership of the exceptional Deborah Poritz, the former chief justice of our state Supreme Court, is hard at work on these and other topics. But even as policymakers tackle these issues, it’s important that the public begin to grapple with the effect of our state’s outdated drug laws and start mobilizing for change.

Now more than ever, the credibility of our criminal justice system is under attack, and the best way to restore the public’s confidence in this vital institution is to ensure that it works fairly and effectively for all members of our society. So let’s reform our state’s drug sentencing laws. As a prosecutor and as a citizen, I can think of no better way to serve the cause of justice.

Gurbir S. Grewal is the New Jersey attorney general and a former Bergen County prosecutor.

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