Tuesday, October 02, 2007

NJ Commission Report Prompts Editorial

Last week, the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing released a 50-page report demonstrating how piecemeal amendments to New Jersey's Criminal Code during the last 28 years have greatly undermined, if not effaced entirely, the original conceptual and architectural underpinnings of sentencing practice in New Jersey.

Today, the editorial board of the Newark Star Ledger saw fit to opine on the report and its recommendation for a wholesale reworking of the Code's sentencing scheme:

Justice's patchwork quilt

New Jersey's criminal code, adopted in 1979, has been amended so many times -- often in emotional response to a tragedy -- that what began as a coherent system of punishment for lawbreakers is today a hodgepodge of contradictory sentencing laws.

What is needed is an overall retooling, not another patch, of the state's criminal code. A report issued last week by the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing provides a pretty good roadmap on how to do it.

The changes made by the Legislature in the past 28 years, the commission found, have limited exercise of discretion by judges and prosecutors, made sentences longer, and even ensured that repeat offenders would become the norm.

The result is a $1 billion-a-year corrections system that is little more than a revolving door. The chances of a 21-year-old who is sentenced to a 10-year mandatory term being able to become a productive citizen in his 30s are slim at best.

Gov. Jon Corzine is expected soon to unveil a plan to attack crime in the state. If the plan is to be meaningful, it must contain a blueprint to help the state find a thoughtful and effective way to reduce the number of people in New Jersey's state prisons.

Fiscal reality cries out for a more economically efficient system. The state simply cannot afford to house 27,000 people a year at a rate approaching $40,000 per inmate.

Aside from the economic benefits of rethinking the harsh sentences, particularly for drug offenses, there are the human costs. In many neighborhoods, an overwhelming number of men are absent because they are incarcerated. Invariably, that has dire consequences for their families and the community at large.

Tackling the job piecemeal won't work. What is needed is wholesale reform.

A transparent, easily understood, predictable sentencing scheme that focuses on keeping violent, dangerous offenders behind bars while finding meaningful alternatives for those who would benefit from drug treatment or other forms of rehabilitation is needed.

What has to stop is legislation by headline. Legislators, however well motivated, can't simply rush in and graft a new law onto the criminal code each time a child is killed or a neighborhood suffers a tragedy, without considering what the change will do to the overall sentencing system.

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