Advocates Applaud Reform Effort and Say New Bill Will Reduce Racial Disparities and Save Taxpayers Money <br> New Coalition Created to Support Fair and Effective Criminal Sentencing Reform and Reinvestment in Families and Communities
Trenton-The Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee today passed compromise legislation to reform the state's unfair and ineffective drug free zone law. The bill, A2762, sponsored by Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer) and Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (D-Bergen) would give judges the discretion not to impose a mandatory minimum sentence under certain circumstances for drug free zone offenses.
Roseanne Scotti, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, called the bill a sensible compromise that would allow for individualized sentences and save taxpayers money. "Basically the current law calls for two different penalties for the same crime with the severity of the penalty based on geography and ultimately on race," said Scotti.
In 2002, the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing issued a groundbreaking report on New Jersey's "drug free zone" law. The law basically mandates a three year mandatory minimum sentence in addition to the penalty for underlying offense when the drug offense occurs in the zones. The commission found that the zones were completely ineffective in reducing drug offences within the designated areas. In addition the commission found that the law had a severe "urban effect" that disproportionately affected minority communities.
Because there were so many schools and other public buildings covered by the law in densely populated urban areas, and because the zones overlap one another, most of the area of any densely populated city became one large drug free zone. Therefore, almost any drug offense in such a city would get the additional mandatory term. Those arrested in less populated suburban and rural areas were much less likely to get the additional penalty. Because of this urban effect, the commission found that 96 percent of those incarcerated under the law were African American or Latino, even though African Americans and Latinos make up only 27 percent of the population.
The passage of the legislation by the committee coincides with the creation of a new coalition of advocates who will call for the repeal of all mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Plans for the coalition will be unveiled at a statehouse press conference on May 28th at 11:30 in room 209. At that time, a report on the hidden costs of incarceration in New Jersey will be released. The coalition, called the New Solutions Campaign will focus on the huge economic costs of the current ineffective criminal sentencing scheme and call for effective alternatives and reinvestment of resources in families and communities.
"Judges should have the discretion to craft fair and effective sentences and not waste taxpayer money," said Scotti. "It costs more than $46,000 a year to incarcerate someone in New Jersey. If someone doesn't deserve the additional penalty and if the additional penalty does nothing to improve public safety, mandating an additional penalty is just throwing taxpayer money down the drain. The bottom line is that New Jersey can't afford ineffective mandatory minimum sentences."