Tommy McDonald at 212-613-8036 or Roseanne Scotti at 609-610-8243
Trenton – At a press conference at the State House today, community leaders and advocates called for reform of New Jersey’s current “school zone” mandatory minimum sentences and praised the sponsors of the reform legislation and the work of the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing. The Commission is a blue-ribbon panel of law enforcement officials, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, corrections officials, legislators and other criminal justice experts. The Commission released a report on Wednesday that analyzes the effect of the law since its passage in 1987. The Commission found the zones to be ineffective and to have an extremely disproportionate impact on minority communities. The Commission recommended reducing the zones from 1000 to 200 feet but increasing the offense level from a 3rd degree to a 2nd degree offense. On Monday, reform legislation (A4465) cleared its first hurdle when it passed the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.
The Commission’s report found that the school zones which encompass 1000 feet from any school, school property, or school bus and 500 feet from any public park or building cover most of the area in urban centers, but far less area in suburban or rural locations, causing what the commission termed the “urban effect” which basically results in a much harsher penalty for the same offense committed in an urban area. “The Commission’s evidence-based report shows irrefutably that the school zone law fails miserably at its intended goals and has created an intrinsically unfair system with differently penalties for different individuals based on geography and ultimately on race,” said Roseanne Scotti, Director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey.
The report found that 96 % of all prison inmates whose most serious offense was a school zone violation were either African American or Latino (79% African American and 17% Latino). The Reverend Reginald T. Jackson, Executive Director of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey said, “It is past time that we reform school zone law in New Jersey. While its intent was good, it has proven to be ineffective, discriminatory and costly. Reform is not about being soft on crime, it is about making good sense and becoming more effective.”
Critics of the law have long maintained that it was both ineffective and unfair to communities of color. “There are many laws worth revision and the reduction of drug free school zones are a good start,” said Daniel Santo Pietro, Executive Director of the Hispanic Directors Association of NJ. “It has severely and disproportionately affected communities of color for too long. The demographics in our prison system in New Jersey show us clearly just how much.” New Jersey has the highest proportion of drug offenders as part of its overall prison population (36%) and the highest percentage of prison admission for drug offenses (48%) of any state in the nation. And although African Americans and Latinos make up only 27 % of the prison population, they account for 81% of prisons.
Donna Brewer, Executive Director of Garden State CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation and Restoration of Errants), talked about the devastating effect of the law on urban families and communities. “Justice for all means that our communities will no longer be disproportionately imprisoned in our state jails and prisons,” said Brewer. “Justice for all means that our children and families will no longer be inexorably tied to prisons.”
The ineffectiveness of the laws also drew fire. At the assembly committee hearings, supporters of reform stated that the large size of the zones dilutes their effectiveness. Because most of any urban area is covered by the zones there is no deterrent to keep offenders away from actual school property or public buildings. Advocates compared it to the go-slow safety zones used on highways to protect work crews. If the entire highway were designated a go-slow zone with nothing to indicate where the actual work areas were located, motorists would simply ignore the zones as they would have been so diluted as to be meaningless.
As further evidence of the law’s ineffectiveness, the Commission’s report found that rather than a decrease in arrests in the school zones, arrests have continued to climb in the years since the law took effect. And of 90 school zone convictions analyzed from reported New Jersey trial courts, the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court, not a single case involved the sale of drugs to a minor and in only two cases did the offense occur on school property.
The economic cost of the ineffective law was also condemned. “When someone is sentenced to a school zone violation they face a mandatory additional three year sentence in addition to any other penalty they receive,” said Roseanne Scotti. “When you consider that it cost New Jersey taxpayers $31,000 a year to incarcerate an individual, and when you realize that this law is having no beneficial effect at all in terms of public safety, it becomes clear that we need to change the law. Drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration are much more effective and cost-efficient. This isn’t a matter of being soft on crime. It’s a matter of being smart on public policy.”