June 2, 2009
NJ legislators fear going "soft" on drug offenders after going "soft" on aggravated murderers
New Jersey has made news for sentencing reform in recent years by being the first state in the modern death penalty era to legislatively abolish capital punishment for aggravated murder. But, as highlighted by this local piece, headlined "NJ maintains its strict drug sentences despite changes elsewhere," there are other notable stories of sentencing reform in the Garden State:
Darius Bolden [who has been imprisoned for three years for possessing drugs near a school] is one of 5,596 state prison inmates -- about 20 percent of New Jersey's total -- serving a mandatory minimum sentence for a drug offense.
Such laws are being loosened across the nation as critics contend decades of strict sentencing requirements for drug offenses clog prisons, unfairly target minorities and don't prevent crime. Louisiana and Michigan have relaxed policies on certain drug offenses. A month ago, New York, one of the first states to implement mandatory minimums for drug crimes with its famous "Rockefeller laws," rolled back some of its strictest provisions.
In New Jersey, however, similar efforts have been stalled for nearly a year. "It hit the wall at 90 miles an hour and imploded," said Bruce Stout, a former member of the state Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing, one of two panels that suggested school zones be shrunk to 200 feet -- something backed by Gov. Jon Corzine, the attorney general, prison officials and prosecutors.
Last June, the Assembly passed a bill to give judges more leeway with drug offenders caught in school zones. But Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) will not put the bill up for a vote in the upper house, saying the public does not want it. "What's the impression you're sending our young ones?" Codey asked.
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is "keeping an open mind" but worries about the potential effect on the state's reputation. "I am concerned that it does have the appearance of being soft on crime," Sarlo said....
Bennett Barlyn, former executive director of the Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing, said it's the wrong policy. "Years from now, we'll look back on that law with an understanding of just how damaging and unproductive it was," he said.
New Jersey's state prison population has almost doubled in the last two decades to nearly 27,000. Todd Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that's a direct result of mandatory minimums. Even though the crime rate has dropped and the number of arrests in the state remained steady, the prison population continued to rise because inmates stay behind bars longer, he said.
Since 1987, the percentage of inmates with mandatory minimums increased from 41 percent to 68 percent. Lydell Sherrer, deputy commissioner for the Department of Corrections, said the increase required the addition of modular units, which resemble housing trailers without the wheels, for low-risk inmates.
Advocates criticize the laws as unfair to urban minorities because school zones often blanket much of a densely populated city, unlike more sprawling suburban areas. The commission reported 96 percent of people incarcerated for violations in drug-free school zones are black or Hispanic.
In my view, it is sad and telling that a state legislature so willing to abolish a rarely-used discretionary punishment for aggravated murderers is so unwilling to reform an over-used mandatory punishment for drug offenders. And it is perhaps even more sad and telling that lots of anti-death penalty advocates likely view New Jersey as a progressive state because of its (essentially symbolic) decision to abolish the death penalty, when in fact its abject failure to reform its drug sentencing laws is so "damaging and unproductive" to the core interests that most modern progressives claim to champion.
Often when I complain about excessive obsession with the death penalty among certain criminal justice reformers, I am told (as in this comment threat) "Help us abolish the death penalty, then we can get to the things you think are important." Sadly, it seems that even after the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey, few are giving needed time and attention to all the other sentencing issues that are so much more consequential (but less high-profile) than the operation of the death penalty.
Some related posts:
- My latest (academic?) musings about progressive punishment perspectives
- A telling and troubling gubenatorial veto in New Mexico after death's repeal
- Why I obsess over courts and others obsessing about the death penalty
- Two (long) reports on problems administering the death penalty
- Was the ABA's Ohio death penalty report just a big capital waste?
- Death slows in Ohio, bringing more LWOP sentences
June 2, 2009 at 10:25 AM | Permalink
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a worst case example of excessive sentencing is the case in Bergeb County of the women getting a 14 year sentence for taking her son to Spain in a dispute with her husband. Even if she defied an order to return him, in the absence of abuse, unrelated victim kidnapping and extortion of an unrelated person, how could any judge of clear and sound mind hand down a 14 year stint. that's how outdated the NJ system is. Esp Bergen County courts.
Posted by: ron stevens | Jan 13, 2010 11:05:00 AM