Three local state senators want to give judges back discretion when sentencing out-of-state gun owners caught with their weapons in New Jersey.
The legislation is in response to the arrest of a single mother from Pennsylvania whose gun case recently garnered national attention. A companion bill was introduced last month by Assemblyman Ron Dancer, R-Ocean, Burlington, Middlesex and Monmouth.
Shaneen Allen had a license to carry in her home state, but found out during a traffic stop on the Atlantic City Expressway last year that it didn’t allow her to cross state lines.
Now, she faces 3½ years in prison before she would be eligible for parole.
Judges’ hands are tied in these cases, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Michael Donio recently said during a sentencing in a similar case.
Now, state Sens. Jeff Van Drew, Christopher Connors and Jim Whelan have announced they will introduce legislation to give judges discretion when sentencing out-of-state gun owners arrested in New Jersey who have otherwise clean criminal records and no gang affiliations.
“Locking up a single mother of two for more than three years because of a misunderstanding of the law is a complete absurdity,” said Van Drew, D-Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland. “We need to trust that our legal system can determine the correct punishment for these cases rather than relying on guidelines that leave no discretion to our judges.”
The bill would also allow pretrial intervention or supervisory treatment.
“We need to give judges some discretion in these cases to determine what is the best course of action or punishment necessary for the crime,” said Whelan, D-Atlantic.
Allen and others are being prosecuted under the Graves Act, which originally was meant to allow stricter penalties and more prison time for those with criminal histories.
In 2008, its scope was expanded in an effort to crackdown on gun crime. But, critics say, it also put mandates on these crimes regardless of the circumstances surrounding them — or the history of the defendant.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain has come under fire because he has held to the strict law, saying it does not allow exemptions in these cases. His predecessor in the office, Ted Housel, took a different stance.
“In these unique cases, when an individual is taking the necessary safety precautions and following the laws as he or she believes them to exist, it makes no sense to impose a mandatory term of imprisonment before considering all of the facts,” said Connors, R-Ocean, Burlington and Atlantic. “This bill would bring common sense to our sentencing laws to ensure that judges are given latitude when handing down sentences in cases where the individual charged makes a mistake with no intent to violate the law.”
Van Drew said he eventually wants to amend the bill to include New Jersey residents with similar cases.
Bonnie Oliver Allamong, 52, was recently sentenced to 275 days of day reporting for bringing her legal gun to her sister’s home for protection during an alleged domestic dispute. The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office has filed an appeal to the sentencing, saying Judge Donio illegally granted a waiver from the current Graves Act mandatory sentencing guides. Allamong’s plea deal called for a three-year prison sentence, with one year of parole ineligibility.
The senators plan to introduce the legislation during the Senate’s next quorum call, scheduled for Sept. 15.
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