First Recommendation by New Sentencing Commission Urges Support for Legislation Allowing Hardship Exception For Driver
Trenton--Today the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing voted unanimously to support Assembly Bill 878 which would allow judges greater discretion concerning driver's license suspensions for drug offenses. The sentencing commission was established last year to make recommendations for reform of criminal sentencing in New Jersey. "The commission if very excited and pleased to recommend the passage of Assembly Bill 878 which would give the sentencing judge discretion on the issue of revocation of driver's licenses in drug cases, upon a finding of compelling circumstances," said Judge Barnett E. Hoffman, chair of the commission.
The bill would only affect drug offenses that were unrelated to driving or driver safety and would not affect penalties for driving under the influence. Federal law requires that states suspend driver's licenses for all drug convictions even misdemeanors or offenses not related to driving. But states may opt out of the requirement by passing legislation. According to the Legal Action Center, about 27 states automatically suspend or revoke licenses for some or all drug offenses; the other states either suspend or revoke licenses only for driving-related offenses or have opted out of the federal law completely. Last year, New Jersey imposed 20,567 suspensions under the law. Most suspensions are unrelated to driving or driving safety.
With statewide job growth occurring mostly in suburban areas, the driver suspension law has drawn increasing criticism. Statistics from the New Jersey Department of Labor indicate that ninety percent of job openings listed with county One Stop Career Centers are not accessible by public transportation. Advocates say the mandatory suspensions present a major barrier to employment, especially for low-income individuals. "This is a promising move to address a considerable barrier to reemployment and community reintegration," said Nancy Fishman of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
Supporters said that A 878 would also facilitate successful drug treatment. "One of the main indicators for successful outcomes in drug treatment is whether the individual has a job," said Roseanne Scotti, Director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey. "If we're really serious about rehabilitation the last thing we want to do put people in a position where they lose their job because they've had their license suspended. Judges need to be able to take these critical factors into consideration when passing sentence."
A broad spectrum of groups praised the commission's vote. The County Prosecutor's Association of New Jersey, which passed its own resolution in favor of A 878, supported the commission's action. "The County Prosecutor's Association recognizes that denial of driving privileges is counterproductive for drug dependent defendants, who require necessities like employment and transportation to drug treatment," said commission member and Burlington County Prosecutor, Robert D. Bernardi, "We do not feel this jeopardizes the public safety by allowing these offenders the ability to support themselves and their families." Attorney General Peter Harvey said that A 878 would help to give judges more sentencing discretion and would allow penalties to be tailored to the circumstance of the individual before the court.
One of the prime sponsors of A 878, Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes, (D, Middlesex), said he hoped the bill would come up for a vote in the Assembly before the end of session, and expected it to be introduced in the Senate by either Senator Bernard F. Kenny (D, Hudson Co.) or Senator Anthony R. Bucco (R, Morris Co), both members of the commission.