Monday, November 26, 2007

Reform and Not in NJ

An op-ed in this NJ paper takes the state to task for a point we make here regularly, the growing tendency of state's to cheapskate the staffing of their sentencing commissions. NJ's problem is that it doesn't even have an active Statistical Analysis Center that could offset the inadequate staff somewhat, the way they have in CO and VT to this point. Also note that our contributor here, Ben Barlyn, gets authoritatively cited, which of course means you can bank it.

The New Jersey commission, once a source of hope for revising state sentencing laws, may itself be in serious trouble. Since midsummer, the commission has not had a staff at all! That's not an encouraging sign.

The overtaxed sentencing commission staff of one is now a staff of zero. The commission's former director, Barlyn, is a lawyer who was on loan from the Attorney General's Office. He left for a job in the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office in August.

The post has been vacant far too long. With so many sentencing issues to be sorted out, how serious can the commission be about making a difference in the incarceration landscape with no staff?

At a time when it should be adding staff and advancing the reform process, the commission seems to be in limbo. It makes little sense for the governor's office to present a major crime-fighting package, as it did last month, and not bolster a commission essential to making it work.

Newly defined offenses and harsher punishments have been the primary modifications made to New Jersey's criminal code since it took effect in 1979. So, from the perspective of both federal and state reforms, legislation has increased punishment but done little to redress policy mistakes that made the state's prisons swell to 28,000 inmates, and the nation's to 2.2 million.

"If a change results in punishment being reduced, it's an extraordinary step. The fact is, historically, politicians are loath to reconsider laws that they have passed which increase punishment... the reason being that they don't want to be considered soft on crime," Barlyn said.

The New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing loses credibility when it's left holding on by a thread with little staff, a stingy budget, and uncertain future. Besides, investing in it could eventually reclaim some of the state's $1 billion prison budget and redirect the savings toward more productive pursuits.

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