Pubdate: Fri, 4 Jan 2008
Source: Asbury Park Press (NJ)
Copyright: 2008 Asbury Park Press
Author: Michael Symons, Gannett State Bureau


Lawmakers advanced measures Thursday that would ease the sentences 
imposed on some people convicted of drug crimes and help ex-convicts 
get government jobs or professional licenses.

The Senate voted 33-0 for a bill, also approved Thursday by the 
Assembly Judiciary Committee, that grants courts discretion to lessen 
the financial penalties for some drug offenses and let some people 
perform "reformative service" to pay some of the debt.

Also, the Senate budget committee endorsed creating a certificate of 
rehabilitation for some felons who convince a judge or the State 
Parole Board they have made efforts to reform themselves.

Both proposals are due for final legislative consideration Monday.

"The problem we face with crime today, especially gangs -- you can't 
just arrest the problem away," said Stephan Finkel, an assistant 
attorney general and the Office of the Attorney General's director of 
legislative affairs.

"Enforcement is necessary, but you also need to have prevention, you 
need to have reentry measures, so people who make a mistake and get 
caught and go to prison, their lives aren't over. They have to come 
back and be able to reintegrate into society and not go back into 
jail. We have to stop the revolving door," Finkel said.

People convicted of drug crimes are assessed fines, on top of the 
other details of their sentences, of $500 to $3,000 per offense, 
depending on the seriousness of the offense. The bill allows judges 
to impose a single penalty for the highest-degree offense, rather 
than penalties for each count, to foster a defendant's rehabilitation.

As an alternative to pay off up to half of those penalties -- which 
are deposited into the Drug Enforcement and Demand Reduction Fund to 
support drug and alcohol abuse prevention and treatment programs -- 
defendants can propose a plan of "reformative service" intended to 
help their rehabilitation.

Such service would focus on training, education or work, covering 
things such as substance abuse treatment, educational or vocational 
services, employment training or services, family counseling, 
community service and volunteer work.

A judge, with input from prosecutors, would decide whether to accept 
such a plan.

"Some people just are not going to be able to pay, and that inability 
to pay puts them at a disadvantage, maybe encourages them to engage 
in new crimes, get into selling drugs," Finkel said.

The rehabilitation certificate would not be available to violent 
offenders, those who targeted children, those convicted of corruption 
charges and those with multiple prior convictions or pending charges.

Certificates would show that the holder is presumed rehabilitated of 
the crime, enabling them to obtain public employment from which they 
might otherwise be barred. Employers generally wouldn't be allowed to 
deny certificate holders a job.

Holders of such certificates could also use it to qualify for 
state-issued professional licenses and certifications for various 
occupations and businesses and their qualifying exams, except for 
lawyers, law-enforcement officers and emergency management positions.

The bill doesn't apply to private employers. 
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