Pubdate: Sun, 29 Nov 2009
Source: Daily Record, The (Parsippany, NJ)
Copyright: 2009 The Daily Record
Author: Michael Symons
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


Law Called Discriminatory

TRENTON -- Lawmakers are close to giving judges to  ability to waive
enhanced prison sentences now mandated  for selling drugs within 1,000
feet of a school, and  the change could free some nonviolent offenders
from  incarceration.

Backers of the change say eliminating the often  three-year mandatory
prison term would be fair, given  that 19 of 20 people sentenced under
the law are black  or Latino because far more area in dense cities is
covered. And they say it would save the state  much-needed cash, with
almost one in five inmates now  serving mandatory drug sentences.

"We have an opportunity to really affect the crime rate  by doing
what's responsible, by doing what's more  affordable, by giving
treatment to offenders, rather  than throwing them in jail and just
having them be an  expense on society, not improve and have an
opportunity  to lead a productive life," said Sen. Raymond Lesniak,

"Anyone who has familiarity with the school-zone  enhancement for jail
penalties understands that it has  been a complete and total failure,
not only for what it  intended to do but its unintended consequences,"
Sen.  Nicholas P. Scutari, D-Union, said. "The societal and  budgetary
costs associated with the school-zone  designation are

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted last week to send  the proposed
change to the full Senate. While some  longtime lawmakers who have
supported school-zone laws  such as Sen. John Girgenti, D-Passaic,
voted for the  change, that sentiment wasn't unanimous.

"I do agree that rehabilitation, treatment is a more  effective way
and a more cost-effective way and is a  more humane way, but in this
day and age, I'm just  concerned the perception we're sending out
there to  those who continue to sell drugs and prey on our  children,
some of our most vulnerable children," said  Sen. Paul Sarlo,
D-Bergen, who despite his opposition  allowed a vote on the bill that
he could have blocked  as committee chairman.

"I was here . . . when we did some of these things,"  said Sen. Gerald
Cardinale, R-Bergen, a legislator  since 1980. "And we did it because
the judges had  created a revolving door by which people were picked
up, and they were put right back out on the street, and  they were out
on the same corner before the cop got  back on duty that arrested him."

The school-zone law was enacted in 1987. Since then,  the portion of
the prison population locked up for drug  crimes has grown from 11
percent to 29 percent.  Department of Corrections data indicate that
some 4,800  inmates, nearly 19 percent of the prison population,  are
serving mandatory minimum drug terms, some for  selling less than an
ounce of cocaine or heroin.

Under the bill, a judge could waive or reduce the  mandatory minimums,
taking into account a defendant's  prior criminal record, the
seriousness of the offense,  whether school was in session and whether
children were  or reasonably could have been nearby.

Mandatory minimums could not be trimmed for offenses  that took place
on school property, including school  buses, or if the defendant
threatened violence or had a  firearm in his or her possession.

The change would allow judges to sentence defendants to  the state's
drug-court program, an intervention and  treatment effort designed to
correct behavior without  sending nonviolent drug offenders to jail
and exposing  them to prison life.

"Once a person is incarcerated, their life is totally  different --
sometimes for the better, most times for  the worse," said retired
state judge Barnett Hoffman,  founder of a Middlesex County drug
treatment program.  "Prison is like college for criminals."

Such a change would bring the potential to save the  state significant
amounts of money for prison  operations. It costs the state around
$39,000 a year to  house a prison inmate, compared with costs of
around  $10,000 a year for people on parole or probation.

In 2008, according to judicial records cited by the  Office of
Legislative Services, just over 3,600 people  were convicted of
distributing drugs within 1,000 of  school property. If half of them
avoided prison time,  the difference to the state could amount to $52
million  a year.

The Department of Corrections budget of $1.16 billion  equals 4
percent of state spending. And its $1 billion  in operating costs --
the part of the state budget that  excludes grants and state aid --
amounts to over 16  percent of direct state spending.

Amendments to the bill made by the Senate Judiciary  Committee would
allow inmates already serving mandatory  minimum sentences to ask the
courts to review and  possibly reduce those prison terms.

Positions on the bill mostly, though not precisely,  follow party
lines, with the majority Democrats in  favor and minority Republicans
opposed. Sen. Jennifer  Beck, R-Monmouth, joined Senate committee
Democrats in  supporting the bill last week.

The Assembly passed a version of the bill in June 2008  by a vote of
49-27, with 47 Democrats and two  Republicans in favor. It would have
to approve the  bill again, to concur with the changes made in the
Senate committee.

Gov.-elect Chris Christie has expressed support for  changing
sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders  and says he would
require drug rehabilitation and  vocational training. He also
advocates stricter prison  terms for violent offenders. 
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