Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Momentum Builds For Reform In New Jersey

Two notable pieces in today's Newark Star Ledger about issues addressed by the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing during my tenure as executive director. First, as reflected by this column, political commentator Tom Moran clearly has yet to exhaust his outrage and indignation over the Legislature's indifference and/or hostility to the Commission's findings concerning the impact of New Jersey's so-called "drug-free zone crimes" and the Commission's proposed reforms. He writes:

In a few weeks, Gov. Jon Corzine will unveil his most important initiative to date, a plan to revamp the state's approach to crime.

It will be tough on gangs and guns, and he'll get no argument in the Legislature on that.

But Corzine says he wants to knock down some of the excesses of the drug war, too. And that will be a tougher fight.

Because the worst excess of all is the mandatory three-year prison term imposed on drug offenders arrested within 1,000 feet of our schools.

The law has proved to be a spectacular failure, stuffing our prisons with nonviolent offenders without slowing the drug trade one bit. Still, when you challenge a tough law like this, the drug warriors rush to grab their pitchforks and form a posse.

"What are we trying to do, accommodate drug dealers?" asks Assemblyman Peter Biondi, a Republican from Somerset County. "The intent was to keep it away from children, and away from schools. And now we're going in reverse. Who are they dealing to? Mostly the kids."
To people like Biondi, this is a simple morality play. Are you on the side of the children, or the dealers?

But when you talk to the people on the front line -- the cops, prosecutors and judges who actually fight this drug war -- the story gets more complex.

For one, schoolchildren are involved in a tiny fraction of school zone cases. Drug arrests tend to occur at night and on weekends, when school is closed. A study of school zones in Massachusetts found that less than 1 percent of the cases involved dealers selling to students.

he law has also failed to push the dealers away from the schools, judging by the rising number of arrests in the zones.

No surprise there. These zones are so large that they cover almost every acre in a crowded city like Newark. And because there is no escaping them, there is no incentive for dealers to move farther away from schools.

In the second op-ed piece, former Supreme Court (and Attorney General) Justice Peter Verniero champions New Jersey's Drug Program (NJDP). Although the piece unfortunately fails to give adequate props to certain officials in the Whitman Administration -- particularly my good friend, current commission member, and all-around mensch, Dr. Bruce Stout -- who were equally instrumental in launching NJDP in the mid-90's, the overarching thrust of the piece is unassailable:

What's a drug court? It's basically an intensive drug-rehabilitation program supervised by a judge. The way it works is that the judge sentences nonviolent, drug-dependent offenders to the program as a form of probation instead of prison. The participants are tightly monitored by court staff, treatment counselors, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Participants risk swift incarceration if they return to drug use or violate other conditions. Persons convicted of serious, violent offenses are not eligible to participate.

Created by the judiciary on an experimental basis in the mid-1990s, drug courts were in their infancy in New Jersey when I became attorney general in 1996. Like many law enforcement officials at the time, I was a bit skeptical. Wasn't treating offenders rather than jailing them a sign of weakness?

The answer, I soon concluded, was no. Since then, my favorable impression of drug courts has never waned. And the evidence in support of such courts has grown over the years. Today statistics confirm that drug-dependent offenders who complete treatment programs are far less likely to commit new offenses than those who are jailed and eventually released from prison. What's more, delivering rehabilitative services to an offender costs about half as much as housing that same individual in a jail.

This is a classic win-win. By treating drug-dependent offenders, we enhance the likelihood that they will beat their addiction and remain law-abiding members of society. In the long run, that makes us more secure and saves taxpayers' money, too -- a welcome outcome from any perspective. And, importantly, treatment programs can relieve untold human suffering by assisting participants in kicking their debilitating drug habits.

I saw those positive elements on display in 1998 at a ceremony in Newark marking the first successful completion of a drug-court program by an Essex County participant. The offender had turned his life around entirely. He explained how, as a result of treatment, he had become employed, gained custody of his 10-year-old autistic son and licked a 19-year drug addition. Nearly everyone in the audience was moved to tears.

The state Supreme Court recalled the history of drug courts in a decision last week in which the justices expanded the ability of trial judges to sentence offenders to treatment programs under the authority of such courts. Writing for his judicial colleagues, Justice Barry Albin aptly noted: "Drug Courts have proven successful in maximizing the rehabilitative prospects of addicted offenders, reducing the cycle of recidivism, and yielding cost-savings to our overburdened criminal justice system."

The judiciary deserves credit for creating drug courts in the first place. Former Gov. Christie Whitman and the Legislature deserve kudos as well. In her 1997-98 budget proposal, the governor committed state resources to buttress the judiciary's drug-court program. In succeeding years, all three branches of government have remained supportive of the treatment concept in varying degrees.

The ones who deserve the most credit, however, are the participants themselves. They muster the courage to complete a rigorous program with the support of friends, family and counselors. I remember a staff assistant once telling me that for some offenders it would be easier to enter prison than a rehabilitation program. Inmates are sometimes forgotten. But drug-court participants are strictly supervised by the judge and others as they dare to defeat their addiction. A treatment program is no walk in the park.

Despite their success, there is still hesitation in some quarters about drug courts. There shouldn't be. We need to expand such programs to increase their effectiveness.
Beyond drug courts, we should review other sentencing provisions of the criminal code to determine what works and what really doesn't.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker and other policy thinkers propose new strategies in dealing with crime, especially drug-related offensives. They understand we need to think outside the box to break the cycle of crime that threatens our communities and consigns too many youth to a state of constant despair. With Gov. Jon Corzine's backing, Attorney General Anne Milgram also is considering reforms.

We can help. One way is for us to be willing to experiment with new ideas, much like we tried drug courts 10 years ago. We need to surrender old notions about what it means to be tough on crime and reorder our fiscal priorities to better address the root causes of crime. Otherwise, we will witness an ever-swelling population of inmates and a prison gate that is nothing but a revolving door.

No comments: