Trenton, NJ--Yesterday, the New Jersey Assembly 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. The legislation is a compromise introduced to replace an earlier bill that would have reduced the size of the zones to 200 feet.
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. "The zones blanket our urban areas and as a result, 96 percent of those getting this additional mandatory minimum sentence are African American or Latino."
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 the 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.
Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey recently released a report, "Wasting Money, Wasting Lives: Calculating the Hidden Costs of Incarceration in New Jersey." The report found that in addition to the approximately $331 million that New Jersey spends each year to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders, the state loses millions more in taxable income from the lost wages of those incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. The loss of taxable income to the state continues even after release because formerly incarcerated individuals earn about 30-40 percent less than those who have never been incarcerated.
"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. It damages the individual's ability to earn a living and become a productive member of society and it shrinks New Jersey's tax base. The bottom line is that New Jersey can't afford ineffective mandatory minimum sentences."