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October 6, 2008 -- The Times (NJ)

Column: A Move Toward Rational Drug Laws

By George Amick

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

New Jersey has a stupid and cruel drug law that has racially discriminatory side effects. A bill that would moderate its provisions is pending in the state Senate and appears to have a good chance of passage this fall.

If that happens, it will be a good thing. With some effective leadership in the Senate and from Gov. Jon Corzine, it will happen.

The law is the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act, which sets mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Since it took effect in 1986, even more severe mandatory penalties have been enacted. The result has been a high toll in wasted dollars and ruined lives.

One year after the act was passed, only 11 percent of the prison population was locked up for nonviolent drug-law offenses. Today, that figure is 32 percent.

New Jersey has the highest proportion of nonviolent drug-law offenders as a percentage of its overall prison population in the nation (36 percent) and the highest proportion of new admissions to prison for nonviolent drug-law offenses (48 percent).

While the number of prisoners in New Jersey went up from 7,990 in 1982 to 28,622 in 2001, the percentage of individuals serving mandatory minimum sentences rose from 11 percent to 61 percent.

New Jersey spends $331 million a year to incarcerate nonviolent drug-law offenders, which is more than 16 other states spend on their entire corrections systems.

It's a foolish way for a financially strapped government to expend its money. But the hidden costs are even greater.

While in jail, the prisoners obviously forgo any opportunity to earn an honest income. Once they are free, they face severely limited job options; ex-cons earn 30 percent to 40 percent less than those who have never been in prison.

Collectively, that represents a lot of lost taxes for the state, a lot of lost child-support payments and a lot of lost trade for local businesses.

Mandatory minimum sentences, by design, tie the hands of judges -- the men and women whose job ought to be to weigh the facts of each case, tailor punishments to fit crimes and dispense justice.

Fair and effective law enforcement relies on judicial discretion. When a legislature enacts mandatory sentences, it blindly proclaims that circumstances don't matter, that one punishment fits all.

A major contributor to overloaded prisons has been a provision that adds three years, with no exceptions and no parole, to the sentence of anyone convicted of committing a drug crime within 1,000 feet of a school or school bus and 500 feet of parks, libraries, museums and other public facilities.

Because the forbidden zones cover most of the state's urban areas but occupy much less of the suburbs, the vast majority of those caught by the law are black or Hispanic.

No one argues that the courts shouldn't throw the book at drug dealers who actually peddle to children. But the approach taken by the school-zone law not only has had a devastatingly disproportionate impact on the minority population, it hasn't protected kids.

A commission of law-enforcement officials, judges, lawmakers, public defenders, prosecutors and other experts found in 2005 that there had been no increase in drug-distribution offenses immediately outside the 1,000-foot perimeter, as would be expected if the law was working.

Instead, arrests within the zone rose steadily over the years. Of the school-zone cases the commission studied, none involved selling drugs to minors. Drug sales tend to take place at nights and on weekends, when kids aren't in school.

Among the hapless fish caught in the net was one Jessie Chambers, who was sentenced to six years in prison for a cocaine offense because he was arrested within 500 feet of New Brunswick's Fire Museum.

The museum is open only by appointment and the bust took place after midnight, when it would be highly unlikely that Chambers was trying to sell to youngsters. But the law required the judge to add three years to the sentence.

Last June 23, the Assembly approved A-2762, sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-Ewing, and backed by Corzine and Attorney General Anne Milgram. The bill would allow judges to waive or reduce parole ineligibility or grant probation in school-zone cases, depending on such factors as the suspect's record and whether school was in session and kids were present.

If the accused person was arrested on school property or possessed a firearm, the mandatory three-year minimum sentence still would apply.

A-2762 represents an important step toward a rational drug policy. Nevertheless, 27 Assembly members, all Republicans, voted against it, while two Democrats, Linda Greenstein of Plainsboro and Walter DeAngelo of Hamilton Township, abstained, which had the effect of a "no" vote.

Three Republicans, to their credit, voted for the bill, including one of the Assembly's most conservative members, Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morristown.

Its supporters believe the Senate will follow suit this fall. The Senate's bill, S-1866, sponsored by Sens. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, and Sandra B. Cunningham, D-Jersey City, currently resides in the Judiciary Committee.

The person who will determine whether it comes to a Senate vote is Senate President Dick Codey, D-West Orange, who opposes proposals to shrink the size of the school zones but has said he supports the compromise measure.

"For me, this is for first-time offenders, where no violence is involved," he told The Star-Ledger in May.

"Optimism is in the air," Watson Coleman told me. Let's hope the optimism is justified.

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