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May 17, 2011

"Five Years for Opening a Bottle of Ketchup? Trying to Make Sense of New Jersey’s Patchwork Sentencing Guidelines"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new piece from The Jersey City Independent, which in turn reports on an interesting public policy report from the Drug Policy Alliance. Here is how the piece starts:

If you ever have to decide between opening a bottle of ketchup and placing it back on the supermarket shelf, or engaging in a fisticuffs with a consenting adult, go for the latter. Giving and taking punches in public might earn you a 30 day sentence, but popping that ketchup seal could cost you five years hard time.  And if, by some chance of fate, you find yourself deliberating between attending a dog fight or punching someone in the eye, take a swing.  The black eye will cost you 180 days in jail, but watching the dog fight could land you in prison for five years.

If the disparities between those sentences don’t seem rational, that’s because they aren’t.  They are the product of decades of ad hoc legislative revision of the New Jersey criminal code that has resulted in overlapping charges, inconsistently graded offenses, and mandatory minimums whose penalties conflict with the values of New Jersey residents. Many of those irrationalities and redundancies have been compiled in “Crime and Punishment in New Jersey,” a new report published by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) that the group has been distributing in an attempt to create momentum for sentencing reform legislation.

In 1978, New Jersey, like the majority of states, adopted the Model Penal Code, a comprehensive code of criminal justice that was designed to incorporate most of the serious criminal activity a creative mind might engage in.  In total, the version of the Model Penal Code adopted in New Jersey included 243 offenses and suboffenses, a large but not unmanageable number.  But since then, Garden State legislators have added an additional 407 offenses and suboffenses.  Which raises the question: Are New Jersey’s criminals so creative they have discovered 407 new ways to create mischief in 33 years, or has something gone wrong in the legislature?

According to the DPA, the fault lies with the legislature.  In its study, the Alliance surveyed New Jersey residents about the seriousness of criminal offenses. They asked respondents to grade crimes by grouping them according to perceived seriousness.  Respondents were also asked about what penalties should be assessed for crimes such as opening ketchup at the supermarket, watching a dog fight, or punching someone in the eye, and found that 90 percent of the time New Jersey residents believed the appropriate punishment was less severe than the criminal code currently calls for.

Often when respondents thought offenses were comparable (ketchup vs. fist fight; dog fight vs. black eye), the criminal code assigned wildly disparate penalties to them. “I think the big take-home message is really that voters’ positions on criminal sentencing are a lot more nuanced and reasonable than the general perception,” Roseanne Scotti says.

Scotti is the New Jersey state director of the DPA, and therefore most interested in the portion of the report that documents the public’s opinion of drug sentences. “I think most people have no idea you can get 10 or 20 years for a few marijuana plants in New Jersey,” she says, referencing one of the report’s findings.

May 17, 2011 at 05:42 PM | Permalink


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Who was talking about drugs in this situation?
What does the law really constitute?
I was in New York a few years ago and these detectives crowded in a black car stopped and asked me if I wanted some amphetamine(?)As if I couldn't smell these cops,why were they trying to force arrests? was the jails empty?I said no thanks and kept walking.Isn't society so sad?The gov.has us so we don't know if we are coming or going.And try proving your right in any situation connected with law.It's all just a joke.

Posted by: Judy | May 17, 2011 9:56:28 PM

I agree, Judy. It is a sad joke. And until enough plutocrats like Dominique Strauss-Kahn have experienced the barbarism, corruption and injustice you describe, we will continue to incarcerate more people in this country as a percentage of the population than any society in human history.

Posted by: James | May 18, 2011 2:40:06 AM

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