As New Jersey legislators push for sentencing reforms of some mandatory minimum drug offense sentences, a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance finds that the state is spending more than $330 million a year to lock up nonviolent drug offenders. The state is also losing out financially in additional ways by imprisoning so many drug offenders, the report found.
The report, "Wasting Money, Wasting Lives: Calculating the Hidden Costs of Incarceration in New Jersey," found that the Garden State leads the nation in incarcerating drug offenders, with nearly half of all state prisoners doing time for drug offenses, well above the 31% national average. In addition to the direct costs of imprisoning about 7,000 new drug offenders each year, the state loses even more money from lost wages and tax revenues, unpaid child support, and decreased future earnings of people with criminal records. The report estimated that each person imprisoned in New Jersey will earn $100,000 less in his lifetime that he otherwise would have earned.
"We are creating an entire cast of people who will forever be economic and labor force outsiders," said Roseanne Scotti, director of DPA's New Jersey office, during a Wednesday press conference. Reduced earnings by former offenders hurt the state, she said. "It is money that would have gone into the larger New Jersey economy," Scotti said.
"The time has come for us to change from throw-away-the-key, lock-'em-up mandatory minimums," said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union). "Let's understand that that hasn't worked."
Newark Mayor Cory Booker said that saddling drug users with criminal records forces them "to live on the margins as outcasts" and push them back toward drug use. "It is time to stop the madness," Booker said. "It is time to stop the hemorrhaging of good, hard-earned taxpayer dollars, pouring it into a hole that seems to get deeper and deeper and deeper."
The report release was timed to prod the legislature into passing a bill that would allow judges some flexibility in sentencing people arrested for nonviolent drug offenses in school zones. That bill, A 2762, has already passed one Assembly committee.
Wednesday, Cryan predicted the bill would pass by the end of June. Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) also came out in support of the bill that day. Now, its up to the rest of the legislature to decide whether it wants to take a baby step in the direction of reducing drug sentences and saving the state money.