Groundbreaking New Report Shatters “Tough on Crime” Myth: Respondents Rated Almost 90 Percent of Offenses in Survey as Less Serious, and Therefore Deserving of Less Serious Punishment, Than Mandated by New Jersey Law

Press Release April 24, 2011
Media Contact

Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Roseanne Scotti 609-610-8243</p>

Trenton—A groundbreaking, new report on New Jersey's Criminal Code and public attitudes toward sentencing was released today in Trenton. The report, Crime and Punishment in New Jersey: The Criminal Code and Public Opinion on Sentencing, was produced by University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Paul H. Robinson and the University of Pennsylvania Criminal Law Research Group. Robinson is one of the world's leading criminal law scholars, a former federal prosecutor and former counsel for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures. The report was commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance.

The most dramatic finding of the report comes from a survey of more than 200 New Jersey residents who were asked their opinions on the level of seriousness of 108 offenses found in New Jersey's criminal code. The respondents rated almost 90 percent of the offenses as less serious, and therefore deserving of less serious punishment, than mandated by New Jersey. For instance, the penalty under New Jersey law for growing 15 marijuana plants can bring a maximum sentence of 20 years, but New Jersey residents rated the offense at a level of seriousness mandating no more than one and a half years. Paying a contractor $80,000 to repair a house "under the table" has a maximum 10 year penalty, but New Jersey residents rated it at a level of seriousness meriting a maximum of only six months in prison.

Advocates say the report is sending a jolt through criminal justice circles and adding force to an emerging national debate. For years, evidence has shown that the public strongly supports alternatives to incarceration and increased judicial discretion in sentencing. But a growing body of evidence indicates public support for a more comprehensive rethinking of criminal penalties. In addition to the findings in New Jersey, recent polling from California showed that nearly three-quarters (72%) of those surveyed favored reducing the penalties for simple drug possession. This included strong majorities of Democrats (79%), independents (72%), and Republicans (66%).

"We are at a tipping point on criminal justice policy and particularly our approach to drugs," said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of Drug Policy Alliance. "We are seeing a wave of sentencing reform in states across the nation and a fundamental rethinking of the failed policies of the past. This report should embolden state legislators to tackle even more comprehensive reforms."

The findings in the New Jersey report mirror and confirm those of a report Robinson and the Research Group did for the Pennsylvania legislature in 2009. That report found that Pennsylvania residents also rated most offenses as deserving of lesser punishment than that mandated by Pennsylvania law.

The new report also found New Jersey's Criminal Code to be "an increasingly convoluted body of law riddled with grading [sentencing] irrationalities and internal inconsistencies." At the inception of the code in 1979, there were 243 comprehensive offenses. Since that time the legislature has added hundreds of new offenses bringing the total number of offenses to more than 1,500, many of which are redundant and/or in conflict with other offenses. In some cases, two versions of what is basically the same offense have two different penalties.

The report makes several recommendations says author, Paul Robinson. "Ideally, the best way to deal with the problems described in the report would be to recodify the state's criminal law into a code that drops unnecessary and duplicative offenses and that resets the grades of all offenses in a way that reflects each offense's relative seriousness in relation to all others," said Robinson. "But short of that, legislators should work to reform some of the more egregious injustices and problems contained in the code such as mandatory minimum sentences and too-harsh penalties for nonviolent offenses. Our report shows clearly that these penalties are at odds with the values of New Jersey residents and should be addressed by the legislature."

Across the country, there is a sea change taking place in criminal justice policy and the report is garnering national attention from legislators in other states who are taking the lead on criminal justice reforms. States including Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Kentucky and California are grappling with huge budget shortfalls and are being forced to recognize that the prison spending sprees of the past are no longer sustainable. These states have implemented a variety of alternatives to incarceration that have saved taxpayers money and improved public safety. In many of these states, the new report from New Jersey is being greeted with enthusiasm.

No state has garnered more attention for its reforms than Texas, the epitome of the "tough on crime" philosophy. But, legislators in that state recently passed a number of criminal justice reforms, including alternatives to incarceration, that saved the state from having to build eight new prisons and saved the taxpayers of Texas hundreds of millions of dollars. And while Texas was reducing its corrections spending, it also reduced its crime rate.

Representative Jerry Madden of Texas (R-Plano), who is chair of the Corrections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives, has been instrumental in passing these reforms in Texas. Madden is one of several state legislators from around the country to comment on the national implications of the New Jersey report. "This report has a profound impact, not just for New Jersey," said Madden. "It confirms the public opinion findings from Pennsylvania, and I would wager if we could do this type of survey in other states we would find the same results. We need a smaller, smarter criminal justice system, but many legislators are reluctant to take on reform because they believe the public doesn't support reform. This report not only proves that the public supports reform, it shows that the public is way ahead of most elected officials when it comes to criminal sentencing."

In Kentucky, another state that has surged to the forefront of criminal justice reform, the New Jersey report is being seen as a guide for next steps. "I can see us using this report as we move forward with the next phase of criminal justice reform here in Kentucky," said Kentucky State Representative John Tilley (D-Christian, Trigg). Tilley, a former prosecutor and current chair of the Kentucky General Assembly Judiciary Committee, has gained national attention with his state's criminal justice reforms. "What we have seen is that by being smarter on crime, we can reduce criminal justice costs and increase public safety," Tilley said. "It's not an either/or situation. In these challenging economic times when states and municipalities are making tough decisions like laying-off police officers and teachers, we need to rethink how we use scarce resources. This report adds to evidence showing that the public supports these efforts."

North Carolina Representative Alice L. Bordsen (D-Alamance), who has led criminal justice reform efforts in that state, said the report provided critically important insight into public support for reform. "Through this important study in New Jersey, like that in Pennsylvania, we can see the disconnect between how our citizens believe law breakers ought to be punished for various criminal offenses and the punishment level actually assigned by lawmakers to those various criminal offenses," said Bordsen. "It is a study of enormous import. Hopefully, it will lead to similar studies in other states; we must do better work ensuring the effectiveness of our penalties or an increasing percentage of our people will be spending time in prison for no productive purpose while consuming increasing amounts of our public funds."

Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. said the report shed new light on public attitudes. "For too long political leaders have promoted ‘tough on crime' policies in the belief that these reflected public sentiment," said Mauer. "We now know that the public has a much more nuanced view of sentencing, one which is often less punitive than current penalties. Given the fiscal realities of over-incarceration, policymakers would be wise to reconsider excessive sentences that do not contribute to public safety."

"Like Texas, New Jersey has been able to reduce incarceration rates in recent years while at the same time reducing crime rates," said Roseanne Scotti. "We can build on this success and become a model for the nation. There is a lot of talk in Trenton these days about zero-based budgeting and performance based-budgeting. The time has come to apply the same principles to the criminal justice system. Over the next weeks and months we will be working with a bi-partisan group of legislators to come up with legislation to address the problems this report highlights and promote reforms that are fairer, more fiscally responsible and more consistent with the values of New Jersey residents."

The full report can be found at:

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

Sign up for updates from DPA.