NJ governor’s race: Murphy’s social justice record

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER AND PROJECTS EDITOR | OCTOBER 18, 2021

NJ Spotlight News

Gov. Phil Murphy

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Phil Murphy’s 2017 campaign slogan was to create a “stronger and fairer” New Jersey. As governor, he has focused significant attention on such social justice issues as immigrant rights and police reform, but his policies have not always  gone far enough for some advocates or delivered change fast enough.

NJ Spotlight News is taking a closer look at some of the ways Murphy, a first-term Democrat seeking reelection, has sought to address New Jersey’s many challenges. Today’s installment examines his work on social justice. Other issues we’re looking at in this series include public education, the state budget, taxes, the environment, health care and COVID-19.

Immigrant rights: Amid former President Trump’s crackdown on undocumented residents, Murphy’s first attorney general issued an “immigrant trust directive” that ordered New Jersey law enforcement officials not to cooperate with most federal agents’ efforts to detain and deport the undocumented. And Murphy’s administration has given some $20 million to organizations that provide legal assistance to low-income undocumented residents who are facing deportation.

Murphy also signed a law letting undocumented drivers get a license. New Jersey has an estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

Five months ago, Murphy  announced a $40 million program, funded by federal stimulus dollars, to provide aid to undocumented and other residents hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last Wednesday, the state Department of Human Services announced the launch of the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund. The fund will provide a maximum of $2,000 per household for those with incomes of up to $55,000; it is also open to anyone who did not get pandemic-related financial relief, including those re-entering from the corrections system, and will close once all the funds are exhausted. Immigrants and advocates pushed Murphy for months to provide people who are undocumented with some financial relief and say the $40 million is not enough.

Police reform: Murphy’s former attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, was an activist in police reform. Grewal issued 30 directives, plus additional guidelines and standards in his 3½ years on the job. Among the most significant were placing limits on the use of force by officers, an early warning system in all agencies to track and respond to internal-affairs complaints, use-of-force and civil actions against officers, and new police training emphasizing de-escalation in responding to calls.

Grewal also ordered local law enforcement agencies to post information online about major disciplinary actions against officers. He consolidated reports from local departments where there were more than 200 cases in which an officer forfeited time off or was demoted, suspended or fired into one central report. And Murphy signed a law requiring most police officers to wear body cameras.

But some advocates are concerned Murphy may sign legislation on his desk that would allow police to review body-camera footage before writing up their reports, saying this could bias a report or prompt an officer to omit pertinent information not captured by the camera. And Murphy said he does not support giving subpoena power to all civilian complaint review boards — another idea pushed by some advocates — but would prefer to see that power given on a case-by-case basis.

Marijuana legalization: As a candidate for office four years ago, Murphy supported the legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use. Lawmakers couldn’t agree on the details and put the issue to voters who approved the change last November. Murphy signed several bills implementing rules regarding the new law. The attorney general quickly ordered prosecutors to drop pending marijuana possession cases and the judiciary dismissed or vacated cases that were before the bench. The state office of the courts then expunged the records of others — more than 362,000 cases in all — and released about 1,200 people from probation for marijuana crimes.

Still, there have been some blips. One of the original bills Murphy signed had prevented police from notifying parents of a first offense for use or possession of weed or alcohol by someone under 21, sparking an outcry from Republicans and parents. Murphy fixed that within a month and now parents are notified when a minor child is caught violating the law. The state commission created to oversee the new law is also behind schedule on receiving and judging applications from those seeking a license to grow or sell marijuana.

And social justice advocates are trying to ensure that the fees the state will be collecting on the legal marijuana sales are reinvested in communities hit hardest by the drug war and are not used for law enforcement purposes. While the law directs that a majority of the tax revenues and fees on growers go to minority communities, it does not guarantee that occur.

Corrections policy: Murphy signed into law several prison reform bills, including one to limit the use of solitary confinement, another designed to help inmates win earlier release and get help re-entering society and a third that guarantees prisoners be treated with dignity and strengthens the power of the corrections ombudsman. But inmate advocates say the implementation of these has been slow, at best.

It became clear last spring that the ombudsman’s office had not embraced its new powers during a legislative hearing on the physical assaults of inmates by corrections officers at the Edna Mahan Correction Facility for Women, the state’s only women’s prison. That led to the resignation of the ombudsman and his position remains unfilled six months later. Murphy did approve increased funding to hire more staff for the office; still, the most recent prison inspection reports posted on the office’s website date to June 16. And it took more than nine months for Murphy to make his appointments to a Department of Corrections advisory board on prisons created by the August 2020 law.

The U.S. Department of Justice issued an explosive report on the Edna Mahan prison in April 2020, finding that the state failed to protect the women there from sexual assault and systemic problems concerning the reporting and investigation of abuse allegations. It took the state 16 months to reach a settlement with DOJ. In the interim, the installation of stationary cameras and the deployment of body-worn cameras for corrections officers moved slowly.

Many people, including the entire state Senate, placed the blame for failures at the feet of Marcus Hicks, the corrections commissioner and called for him to resign or be replaced. Yet Murphy did not signal his disapproval until a damning report on assaults on Mahan inmates portrayed Hicks as unaware that no one was in charge of the facility for almost three months leading up to the day officers assaulted inmates. That report came five months after the assaults. Hicks resigned the day after its release.

Affordable housing: In 2017, candidate Murphy pledged to stop the diversion of money from the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to cover other budgetary items. He did that, though not immediately. Murphy’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year was the first in more than a decade to allocate all the state’s realty transfer fees earmarked for housing to build units.

It then took seven months for the administration to detail its plans for spending the $60 million it had put into the fund. Housing advocates say the state has been slow to approve applications submitted by builders seeking to use the money to build homes and that it has been slow to distribute the funds, but state officials say the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic caused delays.

In the current budget, the administration says it is spending more than $200 million to finance and build hundreds of new affordable homes, as well as aid low-income renters and expand mortgage and down-payment assistance for families with limited means. But Murphy’s plan to use some trust fund dollars to shore up the first-time home buyers program angered housing advocates, who succeeded in getting legislators to restore the money to the fund, which is supposed to be dedicated to building homes for low- and moderate-income residents.

Murphy placed a moratorium on evictions in the early days of the pandemic last year. As that was set to expire two months ago, he signed another law extending the moratorium through the end of 2021, though only for low-income renters, and making $750 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid available to tenants or their landlords to cover back rent. Landlords have complained the state was slow in paying out federal aid, while they have suffered a decline of at least 10% in rental income during the pandemic.

The governor also signed what may be the strongest statewide ban in the nation on housing discrimination against those with a criminal record. Called the Fair Chance in Housing Act, it prohibits  landlords from considering the criminal history of a prospective tenant when making an offer of housing, while allowing for limited circumstances in which a landlord can refuse to rent to an individual.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-10-18 03:27:01 -0700