New Jersey Legislature Passes Groundbreaking Sentencing Reform Bill, Making State First in Nation to Allow Judges to Waive Mandatory Minimum Sentences in Drug-Free School Zones

Press Release January 6, 2010
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Roseanne Scotti at 609-610-8243

Trenton — The New Jersey State Assembly today passed Assembly Bill 2762, a landmark bill that will restore judges’ discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses that take place in “drug-free zones,” within 1000 feet of schools or 500 feet of parks, libraries, museums or public housing projects. A companion bill, S1866, passed the New Jersey Senate on December 10 with bipartisan support, and the measure now goes to the desk of Gov. Jon S. Corzine for final approval. Gov. Corzine has said he will sign the bill into law.

The reform of the state’s draconian drug-free zone law vaults New Jersey to the forefront of state sentencing reform, making New Jersey the first state in the nation to directly reform a drug-free zone law. Supporters of the measure called it a triumph for common sense and fiscal responsibility. It costs more than $46,000 a year to incarcerate someone in New Jersey, and the state’s Corrections budget has ballooned from $289 million to $1.2 billion over the last 20 years.

Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, said the vote signals a new willingness on the part of elected officials at both the state and national level to reform failed sentencing and drug polices.

“At one time, these types of mandatory minimum laws were considered untouchable,” said Scotti. “But there is a growing public backlash against these failed policies and a growing willingness on the part of elected officials to address the mistakes of the past.”

Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), prime sponsor of the bill, said the legislation will restore balance to the sentencing process.

“This legislation strikes the right prosecutorial balance,” said Watson Coleman. “Judges will once again be able to weigh all of the facts of a case against the sentence to be imposed.”

At least 35 states and the federal government have drug-free zone laws on the books. Bills in several states, including Connecticut, have failed to gain enough support for passage, although a growing body of evidence has shown that the zones are ineffective, disproportionately impact communities of color, and are costly to taxpayers. Last year, the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing recommended the repeal of that state’s drug-free zone law.

The effort to reform New Jersey’s law began four years ago with the publication of a report by the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing. The report found that the laws had failed in their intended purpose of reducing drug activity in the zones and had resulted in a staggering disparity in terms of racial impact. The report found that 96 percent of those incarcerated under the law were African American or Latino. Legislation was introduced to reduce the size of the zones but it failed to gain traction, after which the current bill to restore judicial discretion was substituted. The law steadily built support from a broad range of individuals and organizations.

The City Councils of Camden, Jersey City and Newark all passed resolutions in support of the bill in the last two months and eight former New Jersey Attorneys General signed a letter in support of the reform.

A2762/S1866 is supported by a broad coalition of groups, including the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Community Education Centers Alumni Association, Macedonia AME Church-Camden, Corporation for Supportive Housing, New Jersey Association on Correction, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Coalition of Community Corrections Providers of New Jersey, Women Who Never Give Up, People’s Organization for Progress, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Fathers and Men United for a Better Trenton, David Kerr/Integrity House, Healthfirst NJ, Hispanic Directors Association and Latino Leadership Alliance.

It is likely that New Jersey’s action will influence states around the country that are looking for ways to save money and increase fairness and efficiency in criminal sentencing. Ben Barlyn, former executive director of the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing and co-author of the Commission’s drug-free zone report, anticipates other states following New Jersey’s lead.

“Drug-free zone laws, such as New Jersey’s, have attracted widespread criticism from reformers, the judiciary and law enforcement officials alike as being ineffective and costly,” said Barlyn. “From Utah to Illinois to Connecticut to Pennsylvania there has been movement toward reform. This change in New Jersey will perhaps provoke change in other states as well.”

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

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