New Jersey Bill Would Allow Judges to Favor Treatment over Jail Time

New Jersey’s drug-free school-zone law, passed in 1987 to protect schoolchildren, could be amended to give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders under a bill that is now being considered.

Adrienne Lu of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes that the law requires judges to incarcerate for up to three years all offenders convicted of selling drugs (or possessing drugs with the intent to sell them) within 1,000 feet of school property. The law was later changed to strengthen sentences for certain drug offenses within 500 feet of public parks, public housing, and other public buildings.

More than 20 years later, some argue it has done little to protect schoolchildren while disproportionately affecting cities and minorities. Others cite statistics indicating that treatment for drug addiction is more effective (and less costly) than prison.

The latest bill, which the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared last week (8-5), would allow judges to favor treatment over jail time and place offenders on probation in certain cases. The Assembly approved a previous version of the bill.

An amendment that would allow those now in prison for drug-free school-zone violations to apply for resentencing means that if the Senate approves the bill, the bill must return to the Assembly for a second vote.

The legislation calls for judges to consider factors such as a defendant’s criminal record, the proximity of the school property, the likelihood of exposing children to drug-related activity, whether school was in session, and whether children were nearby.

Under the bill, imprisonment would still be mandated for certain drug offenses, including those on school property or a school bus and those in which the defendant used or threatened violence or that involved a firearm.

"The bill gives a judge an opportunity to sentence them to start treatment rather than prison, which is a much more effective," said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), a sponsor of the bill.

Critics said changes would send the wrong message. "We must remember why we established mandatory minimums in the first place," said Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen), a Judiciary Committee member. "Leaving sentencing solely to the discretion of judges often meant that serial offenders were back on the street terrorizing our neighborhoods."

Among complaints about the existing law is that it unfairly targets minorities.

"We’ve heard so often that justice is blind, but in New Jersey, when it comes to drug crimes, too many offenders are unfairly penalized based on where they live and not on what crime they committed," said Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D., Hudson), also a sponsor of the bill. "This bill upholds the original intention of New Jersey’s drug-free school zone and continues to impose hard penalties on violent offenses but gives judges greater authority to dictate sentences for nonviolent offenders."

Large swaths of New Jersey’s most urban communities (where minorities are concentrated) fall within school zones. For example, 52 percent of Camden, 54 percent of Jersey City, and 76 percent of Newark (excluding the airport) are in drug-free school zones.

According to the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing, which studied the law and its effect, 96 percent of offenders convicted and incarcerated for such offenses in New Jersey are black or Hispanic.

"When this was constructed, all you had to do was look at a map in an urban area and you could therefore extrapolate that it would have a disproportionate impact on the people in those communities that are most densely populated," Sen. Nia Gill (D., Essex) said during the Judiciary Committee debate on the bill Monday.

People representing many sides of the criminal-justice system (including prosecutors, corrections officials, probation officers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Drug Policy Alliance) have registered support of the bill.

Barnett E. Hoffman, chairman of the criminal sentencing review commission, which is no longer active, said that while the legislation did not follow all of the recommendations of the commission, it was a very good bill.

"The present law doesn’t work," he said at the committee hearing. "It doesn’t deter anything."

In 1987, Hoffman said, 11 percent of the inmates in state prisons were there for drug offenses. By 1996, more than a third were incarcerated for drug offenses.

Drug courts have been proved to reduce recidivism by 24 percent, Hoffman said, and are generally far less expensive than imprisonment.

Among those who argue that the law affects minorities disproportionately is New Jersey Public Defender Yvonne Smith Segars.

The law, she said at the hearing, "effectively created a double standard: one for urban communities, one for suburban communities."

As recently as 2007, Segars said, New Jersey was one of the top three states in the disparity between incarcerating African Americans and whites. African Americans are incarcerated at 12 times the rate of whites, she said. And while African Americans make up only 13 percent of the state’s population, they constitute 70 percent of its jail population, she said.

Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex), who has the power to decide whether bills are posted for a full Senate vote, opposed a previous version of the bill but, after changes, supports it. "Now it’s a bill that’s fair and gives equal justice for everyone," Codey said.

Gov. Corzine also supports the bill, according to spokesman Robert Corrales.

"Mandatory minimum criminal sentences may give the state Legislature the peace of mind of looking tough on crime, but they do little in terms of creating justice," said Lesniak, who said he had spent more time thinking about the criminal-justice system since two crack-cocaine addicts robbed him at his Elizabeth home in April. The two men have, with Lesniak’s support, agreed to drug treatment instead of imprisonment.

"New Jersey’s drug-free school-zone law simply doesn’t work, and it’s time we establish a fairer legal system for drug crimes in the Garden State," he said.