Lesniak-Cunningham Bill To Give Judges More Discretion For Nonviolent Drug Offenders Clears Judiciary Committee

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 Judiciary Committee today by a vote of 8-5.

“When we first created drug-free school zones, the intent was to protect children from being ensnared in the criminal drug trade,” said Senator Lesniak, D-Union, and a member of the Judiciary Committee. “However, the practical implications of drug-free school zones over the last 20 years have been a judiciary stripped of any discretion regarding sentencing nonviolent offenders, and a legal policy favoring incarceration over rehabilitation for people who would hardly be considered dangerous drug kingpins. Giving judges more discretion over drug crimes will create a fairer, smarter sentencing policy for drug offenses that gets drug-addicted individuals into treatment rather than into prison.”

“Drug-free school zones invariably have a much larger impact in our State’s cities, where development is much more concentrated, and on the African-American and Hispanic populations within those cities,” said Senator Cunningham, D-Hudson. “We’ve heard so often that justice is blind, but in New Jersey, when it comes to drug crimes, too many offenders are unfairly penalized based on where they live, and not on what crime they committed. This bill upholds the original intention of New Jersey’s drug-free school zone, and continues to impose harsh penalties on violent offenses, but gives judges greater authority to dictate sentences for nonviolent offenders.”

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.

“Mandatory minimum criminal sentences may give the State Legislature the peace of mind of looking tough on crime, but they do little in terms of creating justice,” said Senator Lesniak. “It absolutely sends the wrong message when a drug offender convicted in Newark faces mandatory jail time, while a drug offender in rural Hunterdon County gets off with probation for the exact same offense. New Jersey’s drug-free school zone law simply doesn’t work, and it’s time we establish a fairer legal system for drug crimes in the Garden State.”

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.

“New Jersey needs to do a better job in getting violent offenders off the streets, whether it’s drug offenses or criminal street gangs,” said Senator Cunningham. “However, we cannot and should not continue to turn a blind eye to the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing on nonviolent offenders, many of whom enter prison and are recruited into gangs or other violent criminal enterprises. Mandatory minimum sentencing has created more violence on our streets and a hamstrung judiciary, unable to direct nonviolent offenders to drug treatment programs.”

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, 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.

“When entire neighborhoods are included in drug-free zones, the only result is a boom in the prison population, not a reduction in drug crime,” said Senator Cunningham. “It costs the taxpayers of New Jersey nearly three times more money to incarcerate an individual than it does to get that individual into drug treatment, and while they’re in prison, these individuals are simply learning how to be better, more violent criminals. We need fairer, more rational drug crime sentencing in New Jersey, so we can break the vicious cycle of incarceration and violence that plagues so many in our State’s urban centers.”

“This bill doesn’t make us any less tough on crime, but makes us smarter in how we treat criminals,” said Senator Lesniak. “We need to ask ourselves if we’re satisfied with the status quo, or if we’re going to allow the judiciary more say in directing nonviolent offenders into treatment and education programs that will help them avoid becoming repeat offenders. If we think we need to do better for New Jersey’s cities and minorities, we need to readdress mandatory minimum drug crime sentencing policies which blindly put people behind bars instead of getting them the help they need.”

The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

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