ACLU Kicks Off Clemency Project To Reduce NJ Incarceration

By Jake Maher | February 23, 2024, 3:44 PM EST ·

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has launched a new initiative aimed at reducing sentences for incarcerated victims of domestic violence and people facing extreme trial penalties, advocating for a framework that calls on the governor to holistically consider injustices facing those groups of people when making decisions on clemency.

The ACLU-NJ's Clemency Project, unveiled on Thursday and headed by senior staff attorney Rebecca Uwakwe, will petition for reduced sentences for those groups based on the concept of "categorical clemency." The work will tie into the organization's broader goal of cutting New Jersey's prison population, she told Law360 Pulse on Friday.

"It does build on our work, and it builds on our vision to reduce the prison population," Uwakwe said. "You've seen some of the successes that we've had with bail reform and also with [the public health emergency credit law, which allowed incarcerated people approaching their release date to leave prison up to eight months early during the COVID-19 public health emergency]. This builds on that, and it really does center decarceration — it centers reducing the prison population."

Categorical clemency has an established history in the United States, Uwakwe said, and has been gaining traction in recent years related to issues like marijuana decriminalization. Still, this would be a new use of the legal principle in New Jersey, she said.

"We're moving away from the individual, case-by-case basis, and we're looking at groups of people that have shared injustices," Uwakwe told Law360 Pulse.

Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney for the ACLU-NJ, added that people are generally more familiar with individual clemency and its connotations of being used as a favor for the politically connected.

"That's not what this is," he said. "This is identifying big-picture categories in our criminal legal system that are creating injustices, and then identifying people who fit into those categories as candidates for clemency."

Laura Cohen, a professor at Rutgers Law School and director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic there, told Law360 Pulse the project is "important, even crucial."

"New Jersey, although it's a leader in many ways, has fallen short in many aspects of reform and change of our legal system, and one of them is the use of clemency to right unjust sentences and unjust convictions. The governors of New Jersey have not been willing to use their clemency powers broadly," Cohen said, noting that Gov. Phil Murphy has not granted any clemency petitions in his six years in office.

"As a result, we have far fewer grants of clemency than other states," Cohen added. "I'm very hopeful that this focus of the ACLU's project will lead to change in that area."

One of the project's areas of focus will be people facing much harsher sentences than they otherwise would have because they exercised their right to take their criminal case to trial instead of accepting a plea bargain. Uwakwe said she acknowledged that some level of trial penalty is likely inevitable, but the project is taking aim at the most serious cases.

"When we say 'extreme' on trial penalties, we do mean extreme," Uwakwe said.

For victims of domestic violence, Uwakwe said, the project brings attention to an issue that does not get enough of it.

"Right now, there really isn't much of a mechanism to really go into why someone might have committed a crime and how their trauma is connected to the criminal act," Uwakwe said. "Right now we are looking at survivors of domestic violence to amplify their voice and to also shed light on the catastrophic sexual and physical abuse that they faced as it relates to the crime charge."

The project comes after several previous efforts by the ACLU-NJ to reduce incarceration in New Jersey, including advocacy for cannabis legalization, bail reform and the public health emergency credit program, which secured thousands of releases during the pandemic.

The group has continued pushing the state to take measures like eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and decriminalizing other drug offenses. As of 2023, the number of people in prison in New Jersey had fallen by more than 45%. 

The project is also connected to the national ACLU's recently announced Redemption Campaign, which aims to free 50,000 people from federal and state prisons by calling on elected officials to use their clemency powers.

Shalom said that the ACLU-NJ has received guidance from the national ACLU, but the ACLU-NJ's aims are to put New Jersey at the forefront of the clemency issue.

The Clemency Project "will have a uniquely Garden State flavor," he said.

Uwakwe did not say when the first petitions would be made, but said the ACLU-NJ has been heartened by comments Murphy made during his State of the State address earlier in February and on a segment on WNYC showing support for the use of categorical clemency.

Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, said in a statement Thursday that the organization is "encouraged by Gov. Murphy's promise of this approach.

"We must utilize every tool available to us to end mass incarceration," Sinha added. "With just under two years left in the governor's administration, we are eager to work with him to use his broad clemency power to further address the harms of an unjust criminal legal system."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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