New Jersey Drug Free School Zone Law
On December 7, 2005 the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing released a report and recommendations for reforming New Jersey’s school zone mandatory minimum sentencing law. The Commission recommended reducing the school zones from 1000 to 200 feet and increasing the criminal penalty in the 200 foot zone from a 3rd degree to a 2nd degree offense. The report and recommendations of the Commission are truly groundbreaking for two reasons:
- The report is the first of its kind to be conducted by a blue-ribbon panel of law enforcement officials, judges, legislators, public defenders, prosecutors, and other criminal justice experts, and it is only the second comprehensive statewide analysis of state school zone laws.
- The report is evidence-based and data-driven. A thorough analysis was done to examine the real costs and effectiveness of the law.
As a result of this meticulous analysis the Commission made several findings:
- The zones are completely ineffective—if they were effective you would expect to find an increase in distribution offenses immediately beyond the 1000 mark. There is no such increase. Rather than falling, arrests for drug distribution in the zones have steadily risen over the years since the law was passed.
- The law also has an unfair and devastating effect on minority communities. Ninety-six percent of all inmates in NJ whose most serious offense is a school zone violation are African American or Latino. Yet African Americans and Latinos comprise only 27 percent of New Jersey’s population.
- Only 2 out of 10 suburban or rural drug distribution offenses occur within school zones. Eight out of 10 urban distribution offenses occur within school zones. Essentially what the current law does is add about three years of mandatory prison time to the sentences of individuals whose offenses occur in urban areas—and who are overwhelming African American or Latino. Basically New Jersey has two different punishments for the same crime with the severity of the punishment being based on geography and ultimately on race.
- Of 90 reported school zone cases studied not a single case involved selling drugs to minors.
- Only 2 of the 90 school zone cases actually occurred on school property.
- This ineffective and counterproductive law is wasting taxpayer money. As the commission reports, New Jersey spends about $279 million dollars a year just to incarcerate drug offenders. It cost about $31,000 a year per offender. Many of these offenders would be much more effectively and inexpensively dealt with by giving them drug treatment rather than incarcerating them. Implementing the Commission’s recommendations would not only improve public safety, it would save public money.
This report and its recommendations are so solid, so well researched and so supported by evidence that they have won almost unanimous support of law enforcement. The Office of the Attorney General, the New Jersey Prosecutors Association, and the New Jersey Chiefs of Police support this reform. Community groups and advocacy groups have also expressed support.
In March of 2006, Drug Policy Alliance released a national report on drug-free zone laws. The report, commissioned from the Justice Policy Institute, found the same lack of effectiveness and disparate racial impact for drug-free zone laws in states around the country. This report garnered national media coverage and put these unjust laws in the national spotlight.
In December 2007 the Governor’s GEAR (Government Efficiency and Reform) Commission issued a report supporting the reforms recommended by the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing.
The bottom line is that these laws do not work. While the Drug Policy Alliance does not support increasing the penalty for offenses within the new 200 foot zone (we believe the current penalty is a sufficient deterrent) we support the recommendations of the Commission and worked hard towards passage of Assembly Bill No. 2762 / Senate Bill No. 1866, which reforms these ineffective and racially discriminatory laws. Assembly Bill 2762 passed the Assembly in June 2008 and the Senate companion bill, S1866, passed in the Senate December 2009. Governor Jon S. Corzine signed this important legislation on January 12, 2010.