The New Jersey Supreme Court yesterday issued a decision that accepted the ACLU-NJ’s call to strike down a New Jersey statute that had improperly increased criminal sentences by increasing periods of parole ineligibility based on a factual finding by a judge rather than a jury. In State v. Grate and Cromwell, the state Supreme Court determined that the statute at issue violated a previous United States Supreme Court decision that only a jury’s findings, rather than a judge’s determination alone, can increase a punishment given in a criminal case. Here, a lower court judge had increased the sentence of two defendants based on information that the jury never had an opportunity to consider. The Supreme Court has now sent the case back to the lower court to determine a new sentence in light of the new decision.

The state had previously acknowledged that the statute at issue conflicted with the United States Supreme Court decision, but asked that New Jersey's highest court engage in judicial surgery to save the statute. The Court declined, as the statute clearly contemplated that the fact-finding should be done by a judge. As such, the Court could not determine whether the Legislature would have wanted to transfer the fact-finding to the jury or consider other options.

“Because the Court struck down the statute, yesterday's decision puts the question of mandatory minimums back in the hands of the Legislature. We are now at a crossroads. Do we continue to promulgate laws that strip discretion from judges or, in this case, parole boards, and mandate harsher and harsher sentences, or do we inject rationality back into our sentencing scheme?” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom, who authored the ACLU-NJ’s amicus brief in the case.

In this particular case, two men were convicted of unlawful possession of weapons. At the sentencing hearing, a witness testified that the men were gang members, which, if found by a judge, carried with it a mandatory minimum sentence that precluded the possibility of parole for five years. Based on that information, the judge enhanced the sentences, but as the Court yesterday ruled, this unilateral action violated the defendants’ constitutional rights.

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