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Can I Get My Sentence Reduced for a Non-Violent Drug Crime?

Last week was an exceptionally busy one for news, so you may easily have missed it, but on April 19th, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General announced a new directive that effectively eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for several non-violent drug offenses. It means that these sentences will not be required of people found guilty of those particular crimes in the future, but also that people currently serving sentences for having committed one of those offenses in the past may be able to have their prison terms modified.

The new AG directive removes mandatory minimum sentences from 6 particular CDS (“controlled dangerous substances”) offenses:

2C:35-3 Leader of narcotics trafficking network

2C:35-4 Maintaining or operating a facility producing CDS

2C:35-5 Manufacturing, distributing, or dispensing CDS

2C:35-6 Employing a juvenile in a drug distribution scheme

2C:35-7 Distributing, dispensing, or possessing with intent to distribute CDS

within 1,000 feet of a school

2C:35-8 Distribution of CDS to persons under age 18

To begin with, a quick vocabulary lesson. Many people use the words “jail” and “prison” interchangeably, but they are different types of facilities. Each of New Jersey’s 21 counties has a jail that is run by that county’s government and inmates in those facilities may either be awaiting resolution of a pending case (pre-trial) or serving a sentence of 364 days or less (post-conviction). The Department of Corrections runs New Jersey’s prisons, and all of the inmates in those facilities are serving sentences of 1 year or longer. This new directive effects only those serving prison sentences.

It would take a great many blog posts to explain how much time a person serves on a sentence, but for starters: in the vast majority of scenarios, a person sentenced to X years in prison can expect to be released from incarceration considerably before X years have passed. The exact wording of the sentence matters quite a bit. For example, let’s say Person A is sentenced to “5 years” and Person B is sentenced to “5 w/ 2 and a half.” Person A’s sentence is referred to as “flat” time, but Person B’s sentence includes a “stip” and the difference in the wording completely changes the amount of time a person will serve. A “stip” is short for “stipulation of parole ineligibility” and it means that the defendant will have to serve every day of the parole ineligibility period before being considered for release. So Person B will serve a minimum of 2 and a half years before a possibility of release, but in a best case scenario—using a complicated calculation we will not get into today—Person A could be considered for release after as little as 1 year and 5 days. Very long story short: a flat sentence is always preferable to one that requires stip time. Some stips are mandatory by statute (meaning automatically imposed upon sentence) and some are discretionary (meaning requested by the prosecutor and considered by the court before being imposed). The 6 statutes addressed in the new directive carry mandatory stips.

Prior to the new directive, the 6 offenses listed in the directive carried mandatory stip time ranging anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the overall sentence number up to a 25 year stip for 1st degree Leader of a Narcotics Trafficking Network. Going forward, people found guilty of those offenses either in trial or by plea agreement will be able to negotiate a sentence that does not mandate the previously required stip time.

Importantly, the directive also works retroactively for people currently serving a sentence with a stip on one of those crimes. Eligible defendants (currently serving the stip on such a charge AND not serving a stip on a different concurrent charge) may request that prosecutor modify their sentence to remove the stip—which would make that person immediately eligible for parole. The Attorney General is requiring a procedure to be put in place by May 19th to address these requests.

UPDATED MAY 24, 2021: The Office of the Attorney General has launched an online portal to submit requests for sentence modification under the new directive. If you need legal representation for a loved one who may be eligible for a sentence modification, we can help. Contact Forrester Law Firm or call 609-613-1513 (24/7).

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