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ACLU starts clemency project in New Jersey to fight unjust prison terms

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ACLU starts clemency project in New Jersey to fight unjust prison terms

Feb 22, 2024 | 1:00 pm ET
By Dana DiFilippo
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ACLU starts clemency project in New Jersey to fight unjust prison terms
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New Jersey State Prison in Trenton (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has launched a new clemency project intended to help free people languishing in prison under “extreme” sentences.

The group said they’ll take a categorical approach to clemency, meaning they’ll identify groups serving sentences they deem unjust and then petition Gov. Phil Murphy to consider pardoning people or shortening their sentences.

They’re first focusing on incarcerated domestic violence survivors and people who opted to go to trial rather than accept a prosecutor’s plea deal and subsequently got significantly longer sentences than the prosecutor proposed.

Most women in prison are domestic violence survivors, according to an April report by the Sentencing Project. And most criminal cases get resolved by plea bargaining — but those that go to trial so often result in longer sentences that attorneys call the trend “the trial penalty,” according to a recent report by the American Bar Association.

“By taking a categorical approach to clemency, hundreds of more people who no longer need to be in prison will be eligible for expedited review, and eventually, release,” ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha said in a statement.

Gov. Phil Murphy said during a radio show earlier this month that he supports a categorical approach to clemency, predicting it would have a “revolutionary” impact on New Jersey.

In New Jersey, the governor has “essentially unfettered constitutional authority” to grant clemency, according to the ACLU. Murphy does not use that authority, though — he has issued no pardons since he took office, spokesman Tyler Jones said. Only 105 people have received clemency in New Jersey since 1994.

The clemency project is the latest decarceration effort by criminal justice advocates, who point to racial disparities behind bars as proof of the need for reform.

“Our project is a focused effort to mitigate injustice, and it may be the last opportunity for incarcerated people to come home and reconnect with their families and communities,” said Rebecca Uwakwe, a senior staff attorney with ACLU-NJ. “In a state with the nation’s highest racial disparities in prisons, this is fundamental to racial justice and repairing the harms of mass incarceration.”

Jeanne LoCicero, the group’s legal director, said attorneys already have started working with incarcerated domestic violence survivors and are “laying the groundwork” to help people sentenced at trial to longer terms after rejecting plea offers.

“No one should be saddled with significantly harsher punishment for exercising their constitutional right,” she said.