N.J. looks to drop mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes

Nov 15, 2019

Time is up for mandatory minimums in New Jersey.

Citing racial disparities in the prison population, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Thursday that he agreed with a state commission’s recommendation to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of nonviolent drug and property crimes.

Gov. Phil Murphy is calling for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. (Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office)

“They haven’t served the cause of justice. They have devastated the lives of too many individuals and families, mostly people of color,” Murphy said, tying the harsh sentences to the War on Drugs of the 1980s. “It is past time that they are retired.”

The report recommended that the state eliminate mandatory minimums retroactively, meaning that current inmates sentenced under the laws could petition for early release.

New Jersey is among dozens of states taking a second look at policies like mandatory minimums amid shifting attitudes toward the criminal justice system.

“The measure of our success is not the number of people we convict or the length of the sentences we obtain, but whether justice is done in each and every case,” said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, New Jersey’s top law enforcement official.

The report on mandatory minimums was released Thursday by the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which Murphy reconvened after taking office. 

Among its other recommendations was reducing the mandatory minimum sentence for second-degree robbery and burglary from 85% to 50%.

Currently, for example, someone sentenced to 10 years for a drug crime would have to serve 8 ½ years before being considered for release. The new policy would knock that down to five years before a prisoner could petition for release. 

It also suggested allowing judges to consider a juvenile’s age during sentencing and expanding the state’s compassionate medical release program.

Former Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, who chaired the commission, said implementing the commission’s recommendations would go a long way to improving the state’s criminal justice system.

“We all, every one of us, abhor social and ethnic disparities in our criminal justice system,” Poritz said. “We all, every one of us, abhor the mass incarceration created by policy decisions in the United States and in New Jersey.”