Congresswoman Wades into Sacco-Murphy Sentencing Fight. But Does Her Current Position Square With Her Past Support for Second Chances for Family and Friends?

There’s a war of words, or rather tweets, going on following Governor Phil Murphy’s conditional veto of legislation that would have removed mandatory minimum jail sentences for a large number of non-violent crimes. The bill, approved by both houses of the New Jersey Legislature, became controversial after Senator Nicholas Sacco (D – Hudson) added a last minute amendment to remove mandatory minimums for official misconduct charges, and then when fellow legislators broadened its scope to strike them down for several other offenses.

While the rancor between legislators and the Governor was expected, something else has also played out that is more surprising. Over the past week, Senator Sacco and Democratic Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman from Central New Jersey have been exchanging tweets.  The Congresswoman supported the veto action taken by the Governor, tweeting:

Sacco responded in a tweet last Friday, tweeting:

 

In a bit of irony, the Congresswoman hasn’t always been so determined to seek harsh sentences for criminal acts, both by political allies and her own family members.

When she was still serving as Assembly Majority Leader, Watson Coleman tried to get a pardon for Kiburi Tucker, the son of the late-Assemblyman Donald Tucker. Kiburi served five years in prison after being convicted on charges related to a 1996 drive-by shooting in Newark. At the time in 2006, he needed a gubernatorial pardon because he wanted to run for Newark City Council.

Watson-Coleman’s own family hasn’t been immune from criminal activity either. Her sons were sentenced to seven years in jail for an armed robbery at a Kids-R-Us, and one was later hired by Mercer County government as a laborer. County officials at the time called the hiring a redemption story, and reflective of a commitment to give ex-convicts a second chance.

So, is Congresswoman Watson Coleman in any position to oppose Senator Sacco’s inclusion of the official misconduct amendment, as Governor Murphy has? Her past support for leniency in criminal punishment and for second chances for people ensnared in the criminal justice system would suggest a very different outlook than her current hard line approach, and perhaps a touch of hypocrisy and political grandstanding.

The Congresswoman’s office did not return Hudson TV’s request for comment.

For decades in New Jersey, the policy was to have mandatory minimum prison sentences on the books for many non-violent crimes which many criminal justice reform advocates, defense attorneys and others opposed.  It was said that judicial discretion was a more fair approach and that these non-violent offenses did not warrant these mandatory, minimum stays behind bars. Sacco’s amendment added official misconduct to the list of offenses which should not require a mandatory minimum sentence, and legislators later added additional crimes like bribery to the list.  That aspect, however, was not included in recommendations made by a bi-partisan commission created by Governor Murphy when he took office and said criminal justice reform measures would be forthcoming, although it is supported by groups like New Jersey Together and the ACLU which oppose all mandatory minimums.

It has long been believed that the rules are not the same for African-Americans and Hispanics when it comes to imposing sentences, and this amendment would have had the intent to free up jail cells much sooner than has been the case in the past.  The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey would like to see mandatory minimum sentences removed altogether.  They supported the bill and were disappointed by the Governor’s veto.  For the record, more than 80 percent of current inmates incarcerated for mandatory, minimum sentences pertaining to drug offenses, are either Black or Hispanic.