TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Bob Smith which would consolidate and refocus efforts to review the State’s criminal sentencing provisions to ensure greater fairness and efficient use of New Jersey’s resources was approved by the Senate today by a vote of 34-2, receiving final legislative approval.
“It’s become a common Trenton tradition for legislators to advance bills calling for mandatory minimum criminal sentences, to appear tough on crime to their constituents,” said Senator Smith, D-Middlesex and Somerset, and a member of the Judiciary Committee. “A side-effect of this tradition though is a State judiciary system devoid of judicial discretion, with judges having to rely on a formula rather their own legal considerations for sentencing. This informal policy of policymakers legislating criminal sentences has created a needlessly complex and arbitrary criminal code, and is contrary to the principle of separation of powers which is at the core of our government.”
The bill, S-1880, would create the Criminal Sentencing Commission to study and review the State’s sentencing laws. The 13-member Commission would be comprised of bipartisan members appointed by the Governor, the Senate President, the Assembly Speaker, and the Minority Leaders of each Legislative house, as well as the Attorney General, the Public Defender, the Chief Justice, the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, the Chairman of the state Parole Board, the President of the state Bar Association and the President of the New Jersey County Prosecutors Association, or designees chosen by those officials.
The Commission would be required to study and review the statutory law concerning crimes and criminal sentencing and issue yearly reports of its findings and recommendations to lawmakers for revisions in the laws governing the criminal justice system.
“New Jersey’s criminal code is bogged down by decades of mandatory minimum laws, and we need to review the effectiveness and fairness of these laws,” said Senator Smith. “An impartial review, reflecting partisan balance and legal expertise, is necessary to untangle the complex web of statutes governing criminal sentencing in the Garden State, and ensure true justice is being served.”
According to Senator Smith, the new Commission will be charged with developing recommendations with the ultimate goal of rational, just and proportionate criminal sentencing. The Commission will be asked to take into account the needs of public safety, offender accountability, crime reduction and prevention and offender rehabilitation, while promoting the efficient use of the State’s Corrections resources.
“At a time when the State is being asked to do so much more with so much less, we need to also consider the impact of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders on New Jersey’s bottom line,” said Senator Smith. “Our ultimate goal must be a fair and just criminal code which balances punishment for criminal actions, rehabilitation of criminal offenders, and deterrent for future crimes. But, I would like to see the Commission take a look at the cost-effectiveness of incarceration for non-violent criminals, and if appropriate, suggest less costly alternatives to incarceration that fulfill the goals of the justice system in New Jersey.”
The bill was approved by the Assembly earlier in the month, and now heads to the Governor to be signed into law.