NJ lawmakers vote for ending some mandatory minimum sentences
TRENTON — An Assembly panel this week advanced legislation that would enact changes suggested by the state Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, eight months after that panel issued a report that was promptly endorsed by the governor and legislative leaders.
Among the changes planned is the elimination of mandatory-minimum prison terms for nonviolent property and drug-related crimes. Mandatory terms for second-degree robbery and burglary would become 50% of the sentence imposed, rather than 85%.
The Assembly Law and Public Safety also advanced bills that would create geriatric parole and revamp compassionate release rules for sick inmates, as well as one creating a mitigating factor at the time a person is sentenced if they are 25 years old or younger.
“A lot of bills that at the end of the day I think are truly going to help some people and help reform our justice system,” said Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro, D-Gloucester.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, said the geriatric release plan makes sense because such offenders are unlikely to recommit another crime and it costs more to keep older inmates in prison – $70,000 a year, compared with $50,000 for most inmates.
Inmates who are 65 years old or more would be eligible once they serve one-third of their sentence. The bill was amended to cover inmates 50 years old or more who have served half of their sentence. People would be ineligible if convicted of violent crimes, terrorism or sex offenses.
Schaer said fewer than five inmates have been granted compassionate release in the last five years under the existing medical parole program.
“It appears that one significant reason for the law’s limited use is that by the time an inmate qualifies for release, he or she is too ill to take the necessary steps to complete the process,” Schaer said.
“There are checks and balances. It is not as if someone applies and gets it,” he said. “On the contrary, there’s a long and arduous process. But it is a process that makes sense economically for the court system, relives the state potentially of millions and millions of dollars.”
Dan Lombardo, president and chief executive officer for Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, called changes to compassionate release “a long time coming” and “a piece of inspiration.”
“Other than that, the concept is I think not only what should be done right for the people that are being served by the Department of Corrections but it also will eventually over time save taxpayers a significant amount of money,” Lombardo said.
Sarah Fajardo, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the bills help vulnerable people in prisons and juvenile facilities.
“We’re not only talking about compassion, justice, evidence-based criminal justice practices, we’re also talking about our very, very stretched resources at our state levels. And we’re talking about human lives, most importantly.”
The package of changes would also provide for the resentencing of any inmate who committed their crime as a juvenile but was tried as an adult, was sentenced to 30 years or more and has served at least 20 years in prison.
Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, D-Hudson, said there needs to be checks and balances in place to make sure people aren’t released who shouldn’t be. She cited an email about a 14-year-old who committed multiple rapes and eventually killed a victim.
“It concerns me, especially if – there are some juveniles that are really sick individuals,” Chaparro said.
The planned mandatory-minimum changes were amended by the committee to keep them in place for first-degree computer hacking and drug kingpins.
Most of the bills were sent to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for additional consideration before they can be voted on by the full Assembly.
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