Friday, September 21, 2007

The Perfect Storm?

Transitions always suck. For the last two months, I've been trying with uneven success to reacclimate myself to the practice of law after a five-year hiatus. Writing briefs, memos, search warrants, etc. - it's slowly coming back, but I'm still scraping off a thick layer of rust. In any event, my apologies to Mike and the blog for the prolonged absence, which was, also in part, due to the lack of anything of interest to report from my home turf of New Jersey. Until today.

In a column published in today's Newark Star Ledger, political commentator Tom Moran reports that Governor Jon Corzine is poised to announce a comprehensive crime plan in early October that will likely incorporate significant sentencing reform aimed at reducing New Jersey's embarrassingly high proportion of imprisoned non-violent drug offenders:

Remember the Jon Corzine who dove into politics in 2000 as an aggressive liberal who wanted the government to tackle big problems? We had a national surplus back then. And he wanted to spend it on health care, elderly care, and preschool for all. He had big plans.

So it's a cruel twist that he should take charge in New Jersey just as the state is veering towards bankruptcy. What is a progressive fellow supposed to do when the treasury is empty?

Here's one answer: He could call a cease-fire in New Jersey's reckless war on drugs, a move that would save money in the long run. That would take some guts.

But there is hope. Corzine's attorney general, Anne Milgram, is working on a new crime initiative that will be unveiled next month. And the governor now says he wants it to include a significant effort to divert non-violent drug offenders from prison.

"I would be disappointed if we didn't move in that direction," the governor says. "We are clogging up our criminal justice system in a way that I think actually creates greater danger."
New Jersey, which thinks of itself as a progressive state, is arguably the most backward in the nation when it comes to the drug war. Nearly one-third of our prison beds are occupied by non-violent drug offenders, the highest portion in the country.

Meanwhile, addicts in cities like Newark are turned away from drug treatment programs every day because there are no vacancies. For a moment, forget about the thousands of convicts who leave prison every year as economic lepers, most of them destined to return to prison within three years. Forget about the decidedly racist impact of mandatory drug sentences like the school zone law, which ensures that a dealer in a city crowded with schools is treated much more harshly than a dealer in the suburbs.

And forget about the fact that the drug war distracts our police, our prosecutors and our judges from the more important effort against violent crime.

Let's just talk money.

Drug treatment costs less than half as much as prison, and produces much better results. That's not a theory anymore. It's been tried and tested.

Many states, even conservative ones like Texas, have revamped their drug policies for that reason. The latest is Pennsylvania, where Gov. Edward Rendell has proposed releasing thousands of non-violent inmates from prison to save money.

"Every state that has fiscal difficulties is looking at this," says Ben Barlyn, a prosecutor who served as executive director of the state Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing. "There is no rational reason New Jersey should be different."

Will Corzine do it? The fear, based on his history, is that he will move in the right direction but take only baby steps.

"I just hope it's bold and far-reaching," says Newark Mayor Cory Booker. "Think of an 18-year-old pot smoking kid who is not violent, but is selling drugs. That's an opportunity. Send him to prison and he'll learn all about gangs and violent crime. He should be in a treatment program instead."

If Corzine wants big change, he's going to have to fight for it. Because legislators in both parties know that snarling about crime wins votes.

Since the criminal code was enacted in 1979, it's been amended 112 times - each time making the penalties a bit more harsh, according to a recent study by the state Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing.

Yes, there has been some progress. The state's drug courts are slowly expanding, and the state is spending a little more on drug treatment this year. But let's hope Corzine puts his shoulder into this one. We need big change. And this one comes on the cheap.

I've never been reticent over expressing my own deep-seated cynicism about the prospects of genuine sentencing reform in New Jersey: the so-called Garden State is one with a soil seemingly impervious to positive change taking root, especially where rational, evidence-based crime policy is concerned. Nonetheless, I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

I'll be happy to keep you posted.

Elsewhere, Professor Berman notes the serendipitous publication of The Sentencing Project's new report on the Drug War entitled "A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society."

And the good folks over at Crime and Consequences note the U.S.'s smashing success at interdicting Mexican meth. Just kidding. Mexican Drug Cartels are operating throughout the United States, generating up to $23 billion in revenue, according to a GAO report. A story by Washington Post writer Manuel Roig-Franzia cites the report as evidence that Mexico is the largest conduit for drug smuggling into the U.S with methamphetamines being the fastest-growing drug to cross the border. The report found that efforts to reduce drug-trafficking have failed due to government corruption in Mexico and inadequate coordination between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement.

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