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Mandatory minimum prison sentences remain in legislative limbo

| May 17, 2021 | Criminal Defense

Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey recently conditionally vetoed a bill that would have eliminated mandatory minimum prison sentences for numerous crimes. However, a concurrent directive from Attorney General Gerbir Grewel requires prosecutors to agree to shorter prison sentences for both people facing non-violent drug charges and those already jailed for those crimes.

Murphy’s veto removes charges not included among the recommendations of a state commission convened in 2018 to address New Jersey’s sentencing laws. Grewal’s directive applies to six non-violent drug crimes.

Governor’s objections and directive’s constitutionality

The governor noted two objections. First, the bill included a number of crimes beyond a commission’s recommendation, such as Official Misconduct, the criminal charge for public corruption. Second, the bill does not retroactively apply to people jailed for non-violent drug offenses.

A provision of state law known as Section 12 permits the defendant and prosecutors to waive the period of mandatory parole ineligibility by agreement. The directive requires prosecutors to seek the Section 12 waiver during plea negotiations, after a parole violation and after conviction at trial. Grewel believes his directive advances goal of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences while the legislative process unravels. Some legislators, however, have questioned the directive’s constitutionality.

Conditional veto may slow resolution

While Murphy and legislative leaders had initially agreed to implement the recommendations, the governor’s conditional veto may complicate the already knotty legislative process. The legislature could re-enact the bill with Murphy’s amendments and present it again to him for signature. Legislators, however, have proposed a bill containing language identical to the original.

Political dynamics and legal questions remain uncertain. They, among other factors, will contribute to specifics of the enacted bill. In the meantime, the upshot of the guidelines could directly impact those who face potential charges, especially for non-violent drug offenses.