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January 8, 2010

New Jersey on verge of repealing state's school-zone drug laws

Legislative action on criminal sentences often appears to be largely a one-way ratchet, with new laws often pushing punishments up and rarely bringing them down.  However, as detailed in this local report, New Jersey is about the buck the trend through a repeal of its school-zone drug laws.  Here are the details:

People arrested for some drug offenses near schools should no longer face mandatory prison sentences, lawmakers decided today. Assembly members voted 46-30 to send the bill (A2762) to the governor's desk for final approval.

The state has imposed mandatory prison terms of one to three years for people caught dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school since 1987. “The mandatory minimum sentencing the zones require has effectively created two different sentences for the same crime, depending on where an individual lives," Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer) said in a statement. "This is geographic discrimination at its most basic."

Supporters of the bill say those sentences have unnecessarily stuffed New Jersey prisons with nonviolent offenders who deserve probation or access to drug treatment programs. Almost 70 percent of the 6,720 drug offenders serving time in state prisons have mandatory minimum sentences, according to the Department of Corrections.

The bill passed yesterday would allow judges to reduce the required minimum sentence or impose probation, depending on whether the offense occurred when school was in session, its proximity to school grounds, and if children were present. Sentences could not be reduced if the offense took place on school grounds or if it involved violence or a gun.

In addition, the bill will allow current inmates to appeal the mandatory minimum sentences they’ve already received. “This is a progressive solution to a complex problem,” Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) said in a statement.

I know a lot of folks have worked long and hard to get this legislative change through, and those folks merit great credit for helping the legislature work toward a more nuanced solution to a complex problem.

Some related posts (which go back more than four years):

January 8, 2010 at 03:45 PM | Permalink


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Anybody got an idea if Chris Christie would veto this? Or will he simply hire John Ashcroft on a no-bid contract to be an "independant" monitor? [rimshot]

Posted by: Ferris Bueller | Jan 8, 2010 11:09:30 PM

Ferris --

Without taking a position on the bill, I will say that the Dem legislature is doing it now precisely because they think Christie would veto it (but Corzine won't).

You might know that Christie was US Attorney under Bush. US Attorney for New Jersey has been a stepping stone in the past (e.g., Michael Chertoff and Sam Alito). Still, that Christie beat a multi-millionaire, self-financing Democratic incumbent in a very Democratic state that Obama won the year before by 15 points is really bad news for the Dems. This is especially true because Christie was not all that good of a candidate, and there was some conservative grumbling about him.

I don't know if this bill was an issue in the gubernatorial campaign.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 9, 2010 8:27:20 AM

Yep Bill, I'm aware of Christie. I was referring to the controversy around his suggestion as US Atty that a company facing a deferred prosecution agreement hire his former boss John Ashcroft as a independent corporate monitor. Ashcroft then proceeded to bill the company $50 million in fees for about a weekend of work and Christie made a poor choice in refusing to intervene and tell Ashcroft to return to planet earth. Congress later jumped all over Justice and Christie about it and the DAG had to compose new rules about the use of monitors (the "Morford Memo").

I suppose my joke would have worked better at the White Collar Professor's Blog.

I'll keep my day job.

Posted by: Ferris Bueller | Jan 9, 2010 9:36:40 AM

Ferris --

"Yep Bill, I'm aware of Christie."

To say the least. I left the USAO in '99, so I missed some of the action you obviously know about. When I became Counselor at the DEA four years later, I found out the DEA was its own world. I don't think I ever heard of the Morfod Memo. I had a hard enough time keeping up with the Thompson Memo and then the McNulty Memo.

At DEA, we didn't see too many white collar defendants. What we mostly saw were people who had absolutely no idea of how those ten bricks of cocaine got into the trunk of their car.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 9, 2010 10:31:38 AM

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