New Jersey State Prison (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
A New Jersey appellate panel weighed in this week on a yearslong battle over mandatory minimum prison sentences, affirming the state Attorney General’s directive last year ordering prosecutors to waive mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.
Superior Court Judge Carmen Messano, writing for the three-judge panel Tuesday, rejected a lower court’s argument that the directive wrongly set out to do what the Legislature had failed to do. Messano let the directive stand, while cautioning that every case deserves a judge’s “considered judgment, not some rubber stamp.”
Messano’s ruling comes more than two years after the state’s Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission recommended the Legislature eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug and property offenses, saying they contribute to mass incarceration and racial disparities.
Lawmakers passed a bill following the recommendation, but Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed it in objection to an amendment that would have also eliminated mandatory minimums for official misconduct, a charge filed against public officials accused of corruption. The Attorney General’s Office responded to the impasse with its directive.
“Every dollar we spend incarcerating non-violent drug offenders for longer than necessary is a dollar we’re not spending on prevention, treatment, or recovery,” acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck said then.
Tuesday’s ruling stemmed from a Union County case where Diego Arroyo-Nunez was sentenced to 11 years in prison, with a two-year period of parole ineligibility, after pleading guilty in 2019 to a first-degree drug distribution charge. Tuesday’s ruling had no immediate impact on him, because he is out of prison on parole.
Bruck hailed the ruling as “a victory for racial justice.”
Attorney Alexander Shalom filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. He called Tuesday’s ruling “a very good thing.”
“There are thousands of people serving these mandatory minimum sentences that we know are harmful, have a disproportionate racial impact, and do not advance public safety,” Shalom said. “Being able to provide an avenue for release for those thousands of people is incredibly important.”
But, he noted, a legislative fix is still needed.
“This is a safety valve that releases some of the pressure on the system, but it doesn’t change the need in the long term to change our sentencing laws to eliminate mandatory minimums,” he said.
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