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Lesniak-Cunningham Bill To Give Judges More Discretion For Non-Violent Drug Offenders Approved In Senate

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senators Raymond J. Lesniak and Sandra Bolden Cunningham to amend New Jersey’s drug-free school zone law to give judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders was approved by the Senate today by a vote of 24-11.

“This bill save taxpayer dollars, it saves lives and it provides better protection to the public,” said Senator Lesniak, D-Union. “It doesn’t get any better than that.

“The bill is supported by the New Jersey Prosecutors Association and eight former New Jersey Attorneys general,” continued Senator Lesniak. “It has received editorial support from the Star Ledger, the Asbury Park Press and the Trenton Times. But most importantly of all, it provides real opportunities for true justice for the many first-time, nonviolent drug offenders who are put behind bars each year because of where they live, and not the severity of the crime they committed.”

“The saying goes that justice is blind, but in New Jersey, as a result of mandatory minimum prison terms for certain drug offenses, it appears that justice is not color-blind,” said Senator Cunningham, D-Hudson. “Mandatory minimum prison terms for offenses that take place in drug-free school zones have had an unequal impact on the State’s urban population, which is predominantly composed of minority individuals. We must demand the equal application of true justice for all drug offenses that take place in New Jersey, without consideration of where an offender lives.”

The bill, S-1866, would amend the State’s drug-free school zone law to replace the existing mandatory minimum drug sentencing guidelines with more discretion for judges. Under the bill, a judge would be required to consider certain factors when deciding whether or not to waive or reduce parole ineligibility or place a defendant on probation, rather than incarcerate the individual. These factors include the extent and seriousness of the defendant’s prior criminal record; the location within the drug-free school zone of the present offense in relation to school property, including the distance from the school and the reasonable likelihood of exposing children to drug-related activity; whether school was in session at the time of the offense; and whether children were present or in the immediate vicinity of the location when the offense took place.

“Our original intention with New Jersey’s drug-free school zone law was to protect kids from exposure to drug crimes and the illegal drug trade,” said Senator Lesniak. “However, the practical implication of our Legislature’s strict and unwavering penalty structure for drug crimes has been a judiciary which is forced to be more concerned with geography than it is with rehabilitation. It violates the very principles of justice when one offender in rural Hunterdon County can get off with probation while an offender in Newark faces mandatory jail time for the exact same crime.”

Under the provisions of the bill, defendants would be ineligible for a waiver or reduced parole or probation if the offense took place on school property or while on any school bus, or if the defendant used or threatened violence while committing the drug offense, was in possession of a firearm during the committing of the offense, or if the defendant used any other means to create a substantial risk to a police officer. The bill requires the Attorney General to develop guidelines to ensure the uniform exercise of judicial discretion, and would allow any person who is currently serving a mandatory minimum sentence to move to have his or her sentence reviewed by the assignment judge to determine if the new discretionary sentencing guidelines for drug-free school zones applies.

“In recent years, the State of New Jersey has vastly improved the level of support it provides to urban communities to help combat the increase in gang crimes,” said Senator Cunningham. “However, we have to recognize that the State’s mandatory minimum drug sentencing policy provides gangs with a growing pool of new recruits, many of whom entered the prison system as nonviolent offenders and joined a gang inside as a matter of survival. Rather than building a better criminal, we should focus our State’s limited Corrections resources to emphasize rehabilitation and drug treatment over incarceration.”

The Drug-Free School Zone Act was originally passed in 1987 to supplement New Jersey’s drug laws and increase penalties for drug crimes which expose school-age children to the illegal drug trade. However, since the school zone law was implemented, a vast majority of school zone cases have been found not to involve students, and most do not take place on school grounds.

Because the criminal code includes provisions for enhanced drug crime penalties within a drug-free school zone, as well as within 500 feet of a public housing facility, public park, library or museum, many times in urban areas, most of the community is included in the enhanced penalty drug-free school zone or park zone. For example, 54 percent of Jersey City, 52 percent of Camden, and 76 percent of Newark – when you don’t consider the property on which Newark Airport sits – are within enhanced drug penalty zones. In terms of contrast, in rural municipalities like Mansfield Township in Warren County, only 6 percent of the town is included in enhanced drug penalty zones. When comparing drug crime statistics, 80 percent of drug distribution arrests in urban areas involve school zone offenses, while less than 20 percent are for similar arrests in rural areas.

“Rather than condemn first-time, nonviolent drug offenders to a life of crime by locking them away with hardened criminals – and giving them a criminal record which will follow them the rest of their lives – we ought to refocus our justice system’s priorities,” said Senator Cunningham. “It costs three times more money to incarcerate a nonviolent offender than it does to get that offender into a substance abuse treatment program. By giving judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent offenders, hopefully we can spare more attention and resources to protect urban residents from the violence and bloodshed which are symptoms of the growing street gang presence in our cities.”

“This legislation doesn’t make New Jersey weaker on the prosecution of crime, but instead makes us smarter in how we treat nonviolent offenders,” said Senator Lesniak. “Our current policy of blindly locking up drug offenders based on where the crime was committed – and not on the severity of the crime or the criminal history of the offender – contributes to higher rates of recidivism and increased violence than we would see if judges had discretion over sentencing. The data shows that instead of keeping kids safe, mandatory minimum sentencing only builds a better criminal, and it’s time that we demand real justice for New Jersey’s overwhelmed urban centers.”

The bill now heads to the Assembly for consideration of Senate amendments to the bill.

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