Pubdate: Mon, 17 Dec 2007
Source: Home News Tribune (East Brunswick, NJ)
Copyright: 2007 Home News Tribune

There is talk of shrinking drug-free school zones  because of unfair 
social consequences.

But some police officers looking at the issue purely  from a 
law-enforcement perspective say the only thing  lawmakers should 
shrink is the possibility of a drug  dealer facing less time in prison.

The current law increases penalties for anyone found  selling drugs 
within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet  of a park, public building 
or public housing.

A proposal from a state commission now being pushed by  Gov. Jon S. 
Corzine and supported by all 21 county  prosecutors in New Jersey 
calls for reducing the  various zones to 200 feet.

At the same time, the current penalties would increase,  but 
mandatory sentence minimums would disappear.

The idea is to buttress the drug-free zones, making it  less likely 
that drug dealers would set up shop within  a block or two of a school or park.

Not everyone agrees with the proposal.

"Leave it at 1,000 feet," said Rahway Police Chief John  Rodger. "And 
increase the penalty in the 200-foot  zone."

Rodger is also supportive of a bill sponsored by  Assemblymen Peter 
Biondi and Christopher Bateman, both  R-Somerset, that calls for 
increasing penalties in the  current 1,000-foot zone.

Should it come to pass, the 200-foot zones would leave  at least one 
hot spot for drug peddling outside the  loop: on Seaman and Remsen 
streets in New Brunswick,  where many drug arrests are made.

The proposal in effect would expose people selling  drugs there to 
less prison time, and perhaps none at  all depending on their records.

But critics of the current law underscore some glaring facts.

Some 96 percent of the people jailed under the  drug-free zone laws 
are black or Hispanic, according to  the New Jersey Commission to 
Review Criminal  Sentencing.

Suburban and rural drug dealers, largely white, do not  face the same 
penalties in the end because they operate  in less-dense areas.

One estimate places more than 75 percent of Newark  within 
overlapping drug-free zones, not including  Newark Liberty 
International Airport.

New Brunswick is also widely covered by zones.

There are other problems with the law.

While the original intent of protecting school children  makes for 
good political grist, the concern appears to  have been overblown.

Rodger said he does not recall hearing of any drug  deals that took 
place in or next to school yards.

"It's a laudable goal," Caroline Meuly, assistant  Middlesex County 
prosecutor, said of the intent behind  the law. "But I can't think of 
any (criminal case) file  where people have sold to children or targeted them."

She has handled drug cases for most of her 30 years as  a prosecutor.

While the current law appears to have done little to  protect 
children, it has certainly toughened the law in  drug-plagued neighborhoods.

Veteran street cops and prosecutors who have focused on  drug crimes 
in Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties  say that when the original 
law came into play more than  a decade ago, the behavior of drug 
dealers did not  change.

Peddlers go where the customers are used to going.  Already exposed 
to the risk of going to prison by  simply dealing drugs, drug dealers 
generally do not  worry about the nuances of the law when committing a crime.

"You didn't have a guy with a tape measure out saying,  "Hey, I'm two 
feet over, I better move.' " said Cpl.  Philip Rizzo of the Franklin 
Township Police  Department. "It's a matter of them going where the 
business is."

Still, others say 200-foot zones would be far easier  for savvier 
drug dealers to avoid.

But the original law did have one effect, Rizzo said:  It sent a lot 
of people to prison for a few years.

That was not because of the geographic zones put into  place, but a 
result of the mandatory prison terms  included in the law.

Proponents of harsher drug laws say those stiff  sentences were 
watered down long ago. And some of those  same critics grudgingly 
agree that it was for a good  reason.

The mandatory minimum terms in the original law were  three years for 
selling cocaine, heroin or other hard  drugs, and a year for marijuana.

It meant a drug dealer was nearly assured of doing that  much prison 
time for selling drugs in the drug-free  zones.

But the mandatory minimums also removed any wiggle room  for 
prosecutors to strike a plea deal, an important  tool for problem cases.

With nothing to lose, many defendants rolled the dice  in court, 
clogging the system.

The enormous backlog of cases led to a different  approach: Plea 
deals that went below the mandatory  minimums were allowed.

Now the mandatory terms of one and three years still  apply, but only 
if the case goes to trial.

Meuly stressed one important feature of Corzine's  proposal, also 
included in Biondi and Bateman's bill.  By getting rid of mandatory 
minimums all together, it  gives prosecutors even more leeway in 
striking a plea  deal, not to mention what it affords judges.

"There's more discretion," she said.

Few people now who plead guilty or are convicted of a  drug-free zone 
offense escape jail or prison. Most of  them, however, do 
considerably less time than they did  during the early days of the law.

Under the proposal pushed by Corzine, the penalties  would increase 
from third-degree crimes -- they carry  up to a three-to five-year 
prison term and a $15,000  fine -- to second-degree crimes -- a five 
to 10-year  sentence and up to a $150,000 fine.

Second-degree crimes come with a presumption of  incarceration even 
for first-time offenders. But plea  deals sometimes call for those 
people to be sentenced  as third-degree offenders. And convicts in 
New Jersey  do a fraction of their terms.

How this would all shake out in court remains to be  seen. The upshot 
of Corzine's proposal is that fewer  people will be caught in the 
drug-free-zone dragnet,  but those caught and sentenced will likely 
still do  jail or prison time.

Without mandatory minimums, though, a person sentenced  to the full 
10 years in prison could expect to serve  even less than those 
convicted when those mandatory  minimums gave the law sharper teeth.

And the rationale for changing the law seems to be  lost: Those 
convicted under the new proposal would  still be mostly black and Hispanic.
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