Friday, September 28, 2007

One Is The Loneliest Number

Mike's effusive praise directed at my work in recent posts has not only caused severe cranial swelling, but also instilled a strong desire on my part to chime in on his observations based on my own experiences. First, the obvious. Understaffed commissions are intrinsically doomed to premature extinction. Candidly, I doubt very much that the New Jersey Commission will remain a viable, permanent entity, at least in its present form. This is in no way attributable to my departure: I'm genuinely convinced that many talented people with far greater expertise in this area could easily outperform me in the capacity of ED. Nor is it necessarily a direct criticism of the Commission as a whole, although blame could, I think, be fairly apportioned to several members who were simply incapable or unwilling to step up to the plate and advocate on the Commission's behalf.

My prediction is simply made in recognition of the fact that the Commission was brought into existence by well-intentioned people who were totally unfamiliar with the concept of a full-fledged sentencing commission of the sort exemplied by those in NC, VA, KA, MN, and contemplated by the pending legislation in California. The NJ commission's enabling legislation articulated no specific mandates beyond one amorphous duty to review New Jersey's criminal laws for "fairness and proportionality." It was a foundation of sand.

More importantly, I think that had the legislation encompassed a broader, more radical (for NJ) approach to setting sentencing policy, it would have garnered little, if any, widespread political support. This leads to another truism: a commission not entrusted to actually devise and implement sentencing policy is a commission not worth having.

When organized law enforcement signed on to the commission's recommendation to reform NJ's bogus drug free zone laws, I assumed that the Legislature would readily heed the call for change. Boy, how wrong I was. The hyperpolitization of crime policy in New Jersey (a Blue state to the core, incidentally) is so entrenched that even sympathetic legislators were cowed from endorsing a proposal supported by cops and prosecutors. And as the veil of naivete was being lifted, it became all too evident that my Commission was, sooner rather than later, going to drift into utter irrelevance despite my best efforts. It was about then that I first entertained the idea of bailing.

This idea was only compounded by the fact that during my tenure I inhabited an office with no colleagues, no support staff, nothing. Save for the company of Howard Stern on my satellite receiver (I'm neither proud nor ashamed), I worked entirely alone. Amazingly, New Jersey still lacks a state statistical analysis center. Consequently, I couldn't even appropriate data from another source had I wanted to. Ultimately, something just had to give. When an opportunity arose to go back to serving as a prosecutor, I felt I had no alternative but to move on for the sake of my family and my mental health.

To be certain, things are happening in New Jersey. Governor Corzine may very well formally embrace and advocate for passage of the Commission's recent proposals in the coming weeks. I certainly hope he does, although his backing will in no way gaurantee legislative success. Perhaps I left the party too soon as some friends have intimated. Sadly, I'm still convinced otherwise. NJ, as in so many other respects, is just a cautionary example.

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