By Sandra Cunningham and Nellie Pou
While the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked outrage throughout the country and spurred a national discussion on police reform and the future of policing, New Jersey has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform for more than a decade and is poised to take the next step.
This summer, the Legislature will take up a package of reforms to New Jersey’s criminal sentencing laws that will finally repeal mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent crimes, including drug offenses, that have disproportionately affected communities of color, both Black and Hispanic.
These six bills will build on New Jersey’s strong record of criminal justice reform over the past decade, including landmark bail reform, expungement legislation, a “ban the box” law, juvenile justice protections and legislation requiring the appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate all death cases involving law enforcement officers.
The new legislation includes recommendations developed by the state’s Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which includes judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, community stakeholders, corrections officials, faith organizations and victim’s rights advocates.
The reforms are designed to address the lack of proportionality in New Jersey’s sentencing laws, including the elimination and reduction of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. If passed, these changes would have an immediate impact on the racial disparity in our state prisons.
The numbers tell the story: When the commission issued its report last November, 2,532 Black inmates, 616 Hispanic inmates and only 448 white inmates were serving sentences for drug offenses with mandatory minimums. Based on New Jersey’s population, Black people were 25 times more likely than white people to have been convicted of drug offenses with mandatory minimum sentences, and Hispanic people were five times more likely to be locked away – a reflection of built-in biases that persist in our criminal justice system.
If mandatory minimums had been eliminated at the time of the report, 68% of Black people imprisoned for drug offenses for mandatory minimums and 59% of Hispanic and white people would have been immediately eligible for parole for time already served, and the overall Black prison population alone would have been cut by 15%.
The numbers are even starker for inmates serving time for drug offenses within a 1,000-foot school zone: 77% are Black. This reflects the reality that urban centers inhabited largely by people of color are so densely populated that almost every location is within 1,000 feet of school property. Our legislation would eliminate or reduce mandatory minimum sentences for these and other crimes and apply these reforms retroactively.
Other commission recommendations we are seeking to implement would allow sentencing judges to consider a defendant’s youth at the time of the offense as a mitigating factor; create a new “compassionate release” program that builds on the current medical release program; provide the possibility of release for offenders who were sentenced to 30 years or more of imprisonment while juveniles, and improving the data collection capacity of the Department of Corrections.
Our reforms rely on two basic principles: first, individuals convicted of crimes should spend no more time in prison than is necessary to achieve the purposes of sentencing; and second, to the extent individuals must spend time in prison, that time should be used as productively as possible to encourage rehabilitation and prepare for their return to society.
New Jersey has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform for over a decade. In 2015, weenacted the “ban-the-box” law to restrict the ability of employers from inquiring into criminal records during initial employment interviews, giving individuals the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with potential employers about a past criminal history instead of simply being dismissed out of hand. This allows individuals who want to work to support themselves and their families with dignity and strengthens the state’s workforce.
That same year, we enactedjuvenile justice reforms that reduced the use of solitary confinement in the juvenile system, increased the minimum age at which judges can “waive” juveniles into the adult system and limited the offenses that could lead to waiver, and provided due process to youths confined in a juvenile facility who face transfer to an adult prison. We followed up earlier this year with a second bill to improve the juvenile system by reducing both reliance on incarceration and the length of time youth spend in out-of-home placements.
In 2017, the landmark Criminal Justice Reform Act went into effect, fundamentally changing our pre-trial release system from a monetary-based bail system to a risk-based system designed to protect the public. A Pretrial Services Program Review Commission report concluded that the law has markedly reduced the devastating collateral consequences of pretrial detention, including the loss of housing, employment, and custody of children – which were disproportionately borne by individuals of color - without increasing crime rates.
Eighteen months ago, the Legislature passed an independent prosecutor bill that requires the state attorney general to supersede county prosecutors in any death investigation involving law enforcement officers and requires any ensuing trial to take place in a county other than where the incident took place. Incidents throughout the country and right here in New Jersey have highlighted the reality that too often violence by law enforcement, particularly against individuals of color, is not properly investigated or prosecuted. This law is critical to building trust where it is needed most – between law enforcement and communities of color.
Finally, last December, the legislature passed a bill expanding expungement eligibility and establishing a “clean slate” expungement for individuals who have remained offense free for a period of 10 years.
We believe our criminal sentencing legislation appropriately builds upon New Jersey’s legacy of criminal justice reform. There is no better time than now to move forward to institute these vitally needed reforms.
State Senator Sandra Cunningham represents the 31st Legislative District, which includes Bayonne and most of Jersey City.
State Senator Nellie Pou represents the 35th Legislative District, which includes parts of Bergen and Passaic counties, including the city of Paterson. Cunnngham and Pou are the prime sponsors of the new criminal sentencing legislation.
Here’s how to submit an op-ed or Letter to the Editor. Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow us on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and on Facebook at NJ.com Opinion. Get the latest news updates right in your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com’s newsletters.