Over the last 20 years, the U.S. prison population has increased at a staggering rate. The engine driving this explosive growth has been an increase in the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders and mandatory minimum sentencing. A mandatory sentence is legislatively established minimum term of incarceration that prohibits the Court from making an individualized determination of what sentence is appropriate for a given defendant based on the specifics of the offense and the facts of the case.
Largely because of these laws, the United States now has the largest prison population, both numerically and per capita, in the world. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated; this means that one in one hundred adults in our country is behind bars. And while the United States accounts for only five percent of the world’s population, we hold 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
New Jersey’s prison growth has kept pace with this national trend. In 1986, the state passed the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act, considered one of the harshest laws of its kind in the country. Several provisions of the law authorized mandatory minimum sentences. In the years since the passage of the Act, additional mandatory penalties have been enacted.
The result of these legislative changes has been profound, both in human and financial terms. The prison population has risen from about 8,000 in 1982 to more than 23,000 today, and the percentage of individuals serving mandatory minimum sentences has grown from about ten percent to more than 70. And in 1987, roughly percent of the New Jersey prison population was incarcerated for drug offenses. Today, that number exceeds 20 percent.
In order to interject principles of humanity and proportionality into our sentencing structure, judicial discretion must be restored to the process. For this reason, our office is advocating for the passage of the Community Safety and Fair Sentencing Act, which would allow judges to depart from the mandatory minimum sentence for certain second and subsequent drug offenders in order to design a punishment that truly fits the crime. This reform will mitigate the overuse of prison for nonviolent drug offenses that has resulted in the warehousing of thousands of nonviolent prisoners at enormous costs to taxpayers. We hope you join us in supporting this critical piece of legislation.