Eight former attorneys general in New Jersey have put their names behind an effort to repeal mandatory minimum prison sentences in nonviolent drug cases.
The eight signed a letter to Gov. Jon Corzine and members of the Legislature today urging passage of a bill giving judges the discretion to waive the mandatory sentences in certain drug cases. Mandatory minimums are applied in addition to a sentence handed down for a drug offense, and can add years to the length of a low-level drug offender's prison term.
Those convicted of selling or possessing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, in violation of the Drug-Free School Zone law, for example, automatically get a three-year sentence without parole on top of whatever time they're given for the drug offense.
"Our state's penal statutes are overrun with mandatory minimum sentences," said former AG Peter Harvey, now a corporate lawyer in New York City and one of the signers. "We need to trust our judiciary to design an appropriate sentence for the individual standing before the court rather than placing that individual into a predetermined sentencing grid."
The ex-prosecutors said mandatory minimum sentences waste money, do not increase public safety and keep offenders from accessing drug treatment.
Roseanne Scotti, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, which lobbies for drug policy reforms, said the cost of incarceration to New Jersey taxpayers is staggering: $46,000 per year per offender; $331 million a year to keep nonviolent drug offenders locked up.
The bill comes up for a vote in the New Jersey Senate on Thursday. It has already been approved in the Assembly.
A sponsor of the Assembly bill, Democratic leader Bonnie Watson Coleman, said the current drug-free school zone law creates an unfair disadvantage for people who live in cities. Almost everyplace within a city is within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of a park, library, museum or public housing project, all subject to the mandatory minimum sentencing law.
"The mandatory minimum sentencing the zones require has effectively created two different sentences for the same crime, depending on where an individual lives," Watson Coleman said. "This is geographic discrimination at its most basic."
The bill would allow judges to consider these factors when deciding whether to apply the mandatory minimum sentence: the offender's prior criminal record and the seriousness of the offense; the likelihood of exposing children to the drug-related activity; whether school was in session; and whether children were nearby when the offense occurred.
The proposal prohibits judges from waiving the mandatory minimum for crimes that occur on school property and in cases where the offender used or threatened violence, carried a firearm or resisted arrest.
Several other states have reformed or partially changed their mandatory minimum laws, including Rhode Island, which eliminated mandatory minimum drug sentences last month.
Besides Harvey, former AGs John Degnan, John Farmer Jr., Robert del Tufo, Zulima Farber, Deborah Poritz, W. Cary Edwards and James Zazzali signed the letter.
The bill has been endorsed by the state Association on Corrections, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and Hispanic, Latino and women's groups, among others.
December 8, 2009