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Disparate sentencing fails to comport with the legislature's intent, in enacting the Code of Criminal Justice, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:1-1 to 98-4 and the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:35-1 to 36A-1, that there be uniformity in sentencing.
Under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-12 (Section 12) of the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1987 (CDRA), a prosecutor may, through a negotiated plea agreement or post-conviction agreement with the defendant, waive the mandatory minimum sentence specified for any offense under the Act. To satisfy constitutional requirements of the separation of powers doctrine, the Court, in State v. Vasquez, held that the prosecutorial discretion under Section 12 must be subject to judicial review for arbitrary and capricious action. In response to Vasquez, the Attorney General in 1992 promulgated plea agreement guidelines (the 1992 Guidelines), which were amended by the Attorney General's 1997 Supplemental Directive and then again amended by the Uniformity Directive in 1998 (Uniformity Directive). The Guidelines directed each County Prosecutor's Office to adopt its own written plea agreement policy that may include standard plea offers that are more stringent than the statewide minimums provided by the Attorney General. Defendant Christoper Brimage was indicted in Somerset County under the CDRA for third-degree offenses. In exchange for defendant’s guilty plea, the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office offered to recommend the presumptive sentence for a third-degree crime - four years imprisonment plus the mandatory three-year period of parole ineligibility for the school zone offense. Defendant accepted the plea agreement and pleaded guilty to all counts of the indictment, reserving the right to challenge the validity of the Guidelines and the applicability of the mandatory three-year parole disqualifier to his case. Defendant was sentenced to four years imprisonment with a three-year parole disqualifier in accordance with the prosecutor's recommendation. Defendant petitioned the Supreme Court for certification, asserting that the Guidelines have resulted in variant plea-bargaining policies among the counties and have failed to channel prosecutorial discretion adequately under Section 12, resulting in unjustifiable intercounty disparity in sentencing.
Were the Attorney General's Plea-Bargaining Guidelines adequate to satisfy the separation of powers doctrine, as enunciated in State v. Vasquez?
The Court held that the Attorney General's Plea-Bargaining Guidelines, which authorize intercounty disparity, are inadequate to satisfy the separation of powers doctrine, as enunciated in State v. Vasquez, and to meet the statutory goals of uniformity in sentencing. The Court held that the disparity between the counties violated the goals of uniformity in sentencing and thus threatened the balance between prosecutorial and judicial discretion. The Court applied a limited retroactive effect to cases pending final appeal. The Court reversed the lower court's judgment, vacated defendant's sentence, and allowed defendant the option of vacating or renegotiating his plea because the intercounty disparity in plea offer policies was impermissible.