Bipartisan Commission Unanimously Recommends Historic Reforms, Including the Elimination of Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Non-Violent Drug and Non-Violent Property Crimes
TRENTON – Governor Phil Murphy, joined by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, former Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Speaker Craig Coughlin, Senator Sandra Cunningham, Senator Nellie Pou, former President of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives Jiles Ship, and Acting Commissioner of Corrections Marcus Hicks, announced today that he is endorsing the first set of recommendations issued by the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which the Governor convened last year after nearly a decade of dormancy. Among other reforms, the bipartisan Commission called for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes and non-violent property crimes.
“The Commission’s comprehensive recommendations are a critical step toward eliminating the racial disparities in our criminal justice system and ensuring a system that works better for all communities,” said Governor Murphy. “The Commission’s release of a report with unanimous support from across the ideological spectrum is a landmark achievement. I look forward to working with my partners in the Legislature to ensure that these reforms become law as soon as possible.”
“I would like to thank Chief Justice Poritz and Jiles Ship for the leadership they gave to this Commission,” said Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver. “Justice is not always equal. What we are doing today in New Jersey with the leadership of the Governor, our legislative leaders, and everyone standing here, we are going to make the scales a little more equal.”
“The men and women on this commission and those who worked with us are extraordinary people. I thought I had retired but I was wrong,” said Deborah Poritz, Former Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. “Every once in a while, there is an opportunity to work with a group of talented, dedicated people, to do something that will make in a difference in people’s lives.”
“This is a big step in the right direction. There is still a lot of work that we have to do to make sure that the administration of justice is meted out fairly to all New Jersey citizens,”said Jiles Ship, a Commissioner at the New Jersey Police Training Commission, who served as a member of the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission. “I applaud the Governor for his efforts and will look forward to continually working with Chief Justice Poritz on reviewing sentencing and its disposition to make New Jersey even better.”
“I welcome the recommendations of the Criminal Sentencing Commission and praise the work of its members, including my Senate colleagues Senator Sandra Cunningham and Senator Nellie Pou. I know they worked tirelessly to find ways to address racial and ethnic disparities in New Jersey’s criminal justice system, which has the worst disparity in the rates of incarceration between black and white offenders in the nation. That is a terrible distinction for New Jersey that we need to erase,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney. “The Commission’s recommendations represent a significant first step forward in ensuring that New Jersey’s sentencing laws are fair, free of bias and respect our goal of social and legal justice. I support the Commission’s recommended reforms and I will work to have the Legislature do its part to make them a reality.”
“I thank you Chief Justice Poritz and all members of the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission for their important work,” said Speaker Craig Coughlin. “The Commission’s recommendations deserve serious consideration. I will thoroughly review each of the seven core suggestions. ‘Justice for all,’ cannot be something we just say. We have to believe in that principle and do everything in our power to ensure ‘justice for all’ is a reality.”
“I am grateful Governor Murphy reinstated this commission. It is absolutely unacceptable that New Jersey has the greatest disparity in incarceration rates between black and white offenders but it is my hope that these recommendations will change that,” said Senator Sandra Cunningham. “It is no secret our criminal justice system has been failing communities of color since its inception, but this commission and the enactment of their recommendations can begin to turn the tide.”
“The appalling disparity between the criminal sentencing of people of color and whites is reprehensible,” said Senator Nellie Pou. “We can and we must do better. I’m grateful to the Governor for convening the commission and I am proud of my colleague Senator Cunningham as well as all the members of the commission for their dedicated and thoughtful work. These recommendations are a strong start towards reversing what has been a disgraceful state of affairs in New Jersey for far too long.”
“As a career prosecutor, I’ve always believed that our success should be 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,” said Attorney General Grewal, who served as a member of the Commission. “That’s why I support today’s historic recommendations, as do our state’s 21 County Prosecutors. Together, we’re committed to ensuring a criminal justice system that works fairly for everyone.”
“The recommendations proposed by the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission provides a great first step in support of the governor’s commitment to criminal justice reform,” said New Jersey Department of Corrections Acting Commissioner Marcus O. Hicks, Esq. ”They are sound policies that maintain public safety, address inequities, and will likely lead to reductions in prison population. Public safety remains our top priority and we are committed to partnering with all stakeholders to effectuate these recommendations.”
“It is an honor and privilege to serve on the commission and I thank Governor Murphy for including me in this important process. I am extremely proud of our work under the direction and leadership of Chief Justice Poritz, as well as the commission which unanimously developed and approved the first set of recommendations,” said Samuel J. Plumeri, Jr., Chairman of the State Parole Board. “I look forward to my continued participation in further developing rational, meaningful, and accountable policies that will help reduce and prevent crime, rehabilitate offenders, and continue to ensure public safety within our communities.”
"This past Tuesday, as president of the County Prosecutor’s Association, I proudly made the motion to approve the 2019 Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Committee's report—a report designed to address sentencing disparities in New Jersey,” said Sussex County Prosecutor Francis A. Koch, who currently serves as the President of the County Prosecutor’s Association of New Jersey (CPANJ) and a voting member of the Commission. “The Commission’s collaborative efforts, which included Chief Justice Poritz, the Attorney General, CPANJ, the Public Defender, private defense attorneys, legislators, the Department of Corrections, the Parole Board and members of academia, to name a few, was historic and we all unanimously endorsed this report. We look forward to working with the legislature to implement the report's recommendations and to continue the work of this Commission in the future.”
“I applaud the Governor for reconvening the commission after years of being defunct by the previous administration,” said Reverend Charles Boyer, Executive Director of Salvation and Justice. “I look forward to these recommendations only being the first steps towards justice and equity.”
“The Sentencing Commission’s recommendations establish a base for initiating real reforms of an often unjust criminal justice system. Mass incarceration is a deeply rooted crisis that demands broad and bold solutions. In our state, which has the worst Black-white imprisonment disparity in the country, we need to rethink our traditional politics and policies surrounding crime and punishment, especially with regard to relentless prosecutions and excessive sentencing. What will determine the success of these recommendations is not just that they’re made, but that they’re only the beginning. No single commission can facilitate the necessary transformation of our criminal justice system, but these recommendations signify important progress toward that goal. It’s now time for the Legislature, the judiciary, and state agencies to move swiftly to implement the recommendations. New Jersey’s families shouldn’t have to wait any longer for these commonsense reforms,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha.
“These recommendations highlight the importance of much-needed criminal justice reforms, now. Our system’s punishment-standard of mandatory minimums for low-level, nonviolent offenses is increasingly obsolete and needs to end,” said Tony Howley, State Director of Americans for Prosperity and the AFP Foundation of New Jersey. “Our laws should help create pathways, not obstacles, for individuals to get back on their feet, lead fulfilling lives, and contribute to society. We look forward to continue working with a broad coalition of advocates to advance meaningful reforms that will create a smarter criminal justice system.”
Under the leadership of former Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, who Governor Murphy appointed as Chair, the Commission recommended that the Legislature pass comprehensive legislation addressing a lack of proportionality in New Jersey’s sentencing laws. The Commission’s report, which was approved unanimously on Tuesday, includes nine specific recommendations, including a new “compassionate release” program for terminally ill inmates and a resentencing mechanism for juveniles who were sentenced as adults to long prison terms.
The Commission further recommended that certain reforms, including the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses, be applied retroactivity. If enacted, this retroactivity provision would allow inmates currently serving sentences on such crimes to seek early release from prison once they become eligible for parole. The Commission also called for any cost savings arising from reductions in the state’s prison population to be reinvested in rehabilitation programs for inmates and other crime prevention measures.
In enacting these reforms, the Commission sought to further reduce New Jersey’s prison population, which increased rapidly between the 1980s and 2000s, and in recent years has started to decline. Despite this reduction, New Jersey’s inmate population still contains significant racial disparities, with the State’s incarceration rate for African-Americans twelve times that of the white incarceration rate. As the Commission noted, people of color comprise 44 percent of New Jersey’s population but 76.5 percent of the State’s prison population.
The Commission’s bipartisan membership included public members appointed by the Governor, Senate President, Assembly Speaker, and the Senate and Assembly Minority Leaders, as well as representatives of the Attorney General, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Public Defender, the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, the Chairman of the State Parole Board, the President of the County Prosecutors Association, and the President of the New Jersey Bar Association. The Commission was established in 2009, but, under Governor Christie’s Administration, members were never appointed and the Commission failed to meet. In February 2018, during his first full month in office, Governor Murphy announced his two appointments – Chief Justice Poritz and Jiles Ship, the former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives – and directed that the Commission begin meeting regularly.
In issuing its first set of recommendations, the Commission made clear that it intended to issue additional reports in the coming years addressing other issues relating to mandatory minimum sentences and the state’s criminal justice system.