How did a push to cut unfair criminal sentences clash with corruption? N.J. politics!

Posted Apr 25, 2021

Call it a classic tale of Jersey politics.

It all began with a criminal justice movement to change decades-old policy that forced thousands behind bars for long periods of time, even if judges or prosecutors preferred more lenient punishment: New Jersey law mandating minimum prison sentences for a wide range of crimes.

A bi-partisan commission Gov. Phil Murphy formed when he first took office recommended reforms that were drafted in a bill and moved through the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

But then a powerful lawmaker, Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, quietly added official misconduct — a crime that includes political corruption — to the list of offenses that would no longer be subject to mandatory minimums.

It was something the commission never recommended. But it also had the potential to help the son of Sacco’s longtime girlfriend.

Murphy warned he wouldn’t sign the legislation with the amendment. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, no fan of Murphy, advanced it anyway. The governor conditionally vetoed the bill Monday, saying the Sacco amendment must be removed. Within hours, lawmakers reintroduced the exact same legislation.

So there’s yet another standoff between Sweeney and fellow Democrat Murphy, in an election year for both the governor and the Legislature, no less.

But the Murphy side had another move to make.

Just as the governor announced his veto, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal immediately issued a directive that would end many of the mandatory minimum sentences. Prosecutors can waive mandatory minimum terms associated with any non-violent drug offense, and it applies retroactively for people currently serving sentences. So much of the intent of the bill goes into effect, with the five-year mandatory minimum for political corruption and other official misconduct crimes intact.

End of story? No way. Grewal’s action is not codified in law, which means a new administration could swiftly revert to old practices. And that has some furious.

“It should not have been hijacked for political purposes and to have included that amendment,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-12th Dist., who advocated for ending mandatory minimums during her 17 years as an assemblywoman.

“I don’t understand how that amendment was even allowed to go forward, but to include that amendment that would have eliminated mandatory minimums for politicians and law enforcement, and people of that ilk, when you think about what’s happening in this day and age, I thought that that was just very wrongheaded,” she told NJ Advance Media.

Watson Coleman also slammed opponents of Murphy’s conditional veto on social media.

Murphy and other proponents of the reform have said the intention of the sentencing commission was to rectify the disparity in the state’s criminal justice system, where more than 80% of inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are either Black or Hispanic, according to the state’s public defender’s office.

Official misconduct is sometimes used to prosecute politicians, police officers and other public workers. The son of Sacco’s girlfriend is facing an official misconduct offense for allegedly submitting false timesheets in North Bergen, where Sacco is the mayor.

Sacco declined through a spokesman to talk to NJ Advance Media about his original amendment to the bill, which was first reported by Politico NJ. But he said in a tweet on Friday that if Watson Coleman was concerned about criminal justice reform, she should support the reintroduced bill “to remove all mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes,” adding: “Anything less falls short.”

Sweeney, who controls which bills are voted on by the full Senate, said in a statement Monday that while he welcomed the attorney general’s action, it “falls far short of the goal of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all nonviolent offenses.”

Sweeney didn’t return a message for comment. Neither did the bill’s prime sponsor, state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson.

Proponents of the bill Murphy rejected have said the original legislation didn’t have enough support to pass in the Legislature. But the votes were there after Sacco’s amendments were added.

They also argue it’s wrong for lawmakers to remove mandatory minimums for one crime and to keep them for another, said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who also works as a city prosecutor.

“I have the longtime experience with these two types of things, lawmaking and prosecuting,” he said. “We’re making a good law better. If you’re against mandatory minimums, you’re against mandatory minimums.”

Scutari added: “Sometimes there’s a difference of opinions that need to be rectified. (Lawmakers are) the ones that have to deal with the long-term effects of the decisions that we make.”

At least one advocacy group that wants to get rid of mandatory minimums agreed with Scutari’s argument.

“If (mandatory minimums) don’t work for one category of crimes they shouldn’t work for any category of crimes,” said Amol Sinha, the executive director of the ACLU-NJ.

The ACLU-NJ supported the announcement from the attorney general. But the group was also “disappointed” by Murphy’s veto and supports the legislation.

“It’s a shame that we have a unanimous consensus from the bipartisan Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission and we have years of legislative advocacy here only to see it not to come to fruition,” he said.

Watson Coleman, overall, isn’t buying it.

“I would suggest to my former friends and current friends, and former colleagues, to look into your hearts and to look into the reasons for the introduction of this bill in the first place and ask yourself: ‘Was it really to make sentences lighter and justice more jaded when it came to political corruption, law enforcement corruption and other public corruption?,’” she said. “I don’t think so.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-04-26 02:20:46 -0700