Friday, December 07, 2007

Dead As Dead Can Be

The above are the words chosen by a New Jersey legislator to characterize legislative proposals put forth by the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing, which were recently embraced by Governor Jon Corzine and organized law enforcement, including the New Jersey County Prosecutors' Association.

Tom Moran, an ardent supporter of the New Jersey commission and its work, provides an impassioned and fitting (though probably unintended) epitaph for any near and long-term change in his political column in today's Newark Star Ledger. Absent a deus ex machina, the prospects of any concrete and meaningful reform in New Jersey is, despite the best efforts of many well-meaning, courageous and forward-thinking folks, conclusively over. Rather than exposing myself to serious trouble by inelegantly spewing embittered invective at those responsible for this total debacle, I'll simply defer to Mr. Moran:


When it comes to the drug war, New Jersey is among the most ferocious fighters in the country, jailing huge numbers of nonviolent offenders on mandatory sentences.

It hasn't worked. Every prosecutor in the state wants to reform the laws so we can divert more addicts into treatment and save the prison cells for violent criminals. So does the attorney general, the governor, and every blue-ribbon panel that's looked at it.

But the state Senate, following the lead of Senate President Richard Codey, is standing squarely in the way of reform. And that's not likely to change, according to several sources in the Senate, Assembly, and senior ranks of the Corzine administration.

"It's as dead as dead can be," said one Democratic senator, who preferred not to be named because he didn't want to step on Codey's toes.

Count this reform as a casualty of the poisonous way we play politics. Senators know that they could be lampooned in 30-second commercials as soft-headed liberals who want to surrender control of our streets to the drug lords. Yes, some opponents are no doubt sincere. But others are just scared.

"It's all about the politics," says Sen. Bernard Kenny, a supporter of reform. "You'd have to spend your whole election campaign trying to explain yourself on this. Most people are going to bow to that reality and just not touch it."

There is still some small chance for reform. Codey says he will not block a vote on it, as he could. And yesterday, he said he was open to compromise on first offenders. A senior official in the Corzine administration said reform is not yet "completely and totally dead."

But the mood this week among those pushing reform is grim, even morose.

"There is absolutely no good reason to continue this tremendous waste of resources and human life," says Judge Barnett Hoffman, a retired judge who sent hundreds of addicts to jail under the state's mandatory drug laws and later served as chairman of the Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing.

"This used to eat me up on the bench. I was taking a guy who really didn't belong in jail, a guy who is an addict and needs treatment. You put him in jail for three years at a cost of $35,000 a year, and what he really learns is new places to buy drugs and new ways to use drugs. And then you send him home without treatment and he goes back to the old neighborhood and it starts again. This is just crazy."

A minor correction: The cost of holding one inmate for a year, when you add it all up, is just over $45,000 a year, according to the Department of Corrections. High-quality drug treatment, which works much better, costs less than half that.

But you get the man's point. You hear a lot of that same frustration when you talk to the cops, prosecutors and judges who are on the front lines of the drug war.

The main culprit in New Jersey is the law mandating tough prison terms for minor drug dealers caught within 1,000 feet of a school. That is a big dragnet that covers almost every square inch of cities like Newark and Camden.

"I never saw one of these cases that had anything to do with a school," Hoffman says.

No one objects to the laws that double sentences for dealers who sell to children. But the practical effect of the school law is that urban dealers face much tougher penalties than suburban dealers. Not surprisingly, 96 percent of those caught in its web are African-American or Latino.

This law is plainly unjust. It is also expensive, and self-defeating. The bill that Codey opposes would scale back the zones to 200 feet, and give judges greater discretion.

Corzine, as is typical, has not worked the political levers at all. Several senators say they haven't even been approached.

So we plod along, and the addicts cycle in and out of jail, leaving a horrible trail of damage in their families and their communities.

But the politicians, come next election, can at least assure you that they are being tough on crime. No matter the cost.

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