Sentencing: New Jersey Moves to Shrink "Drug-Free Zones," Cops Protest

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D), all 21 county prosecutors, and the state sentencing commission all agree that the Garden State's drug-free zone law is ineffective, racially unbalanced and should be amended, but some New Jersey law enforcement officials disagree. While Corzine and his allies want to cut back on the drug-free zones, these police officials are pushing for even stiffer penalties.

Under current New Jersey law, anyone caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of a park, public building, or public housing is subject to increased penalties, including mandatory minimum sentences. Under the proposal presented by the state and embodied in a pending bill, A2877, the drug-free zones would be cut back to 200 feet, sentences would be increased for sales within the zones, but the mandatory minimum sentences would be dropped.

Drug-free zones became popular as a law enforcement tool designed to protect kids from drug dealers, but as the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing pointed out in a 2005 report and again in a supplemental report this year, the zones cover huge swathes of urban New Jersey, effectively submitting black and brown city dwellers to much more severe penalties than those faced by their white suburban or rural counterparts. According to the commission, 96% of people jailed under the law are black or Hispanic.

The drug-free zone laws had another pernicious effect as well: Although they did not stop drug dealing within the zones, they did result in stiff mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted. Selling a bag of weed in the zone got you a year in prison, while selling a rock of crack got you three years. As a result, more defendants fought their cases, clogging the courts with low-level drug dealers.

In addition to clogging the courts, prosecutors also complained that the mandatory minimums meant there was little wiggle room for plea deals, leaving them without cooperating witnesses to make further drug cases. As a result, prosecutors have effectively ditched the mandatory minimums for anyone who would accept a plea bargain. Now, only those who contest their charges in court and lose are hit with the mandatory minimums.

But while the governor, the prosecutors, and the sentencing commission want to further reform the drug-free zone law, some police want to go in the opposite direction. "Leave it at 1,000 feet," said Rahway Police Chief John Rodger. "And increase the penalty in the 200-foot zone," he told the Home News Tribune this week.

Still, Rodger conceded that he could not recall any drug deals taking place in or near schoolyards, a sentiment shared by veteran Middlesex County Prosecutor Caroline Meuly. The drug-free zone law has "a laudable goal," she said, "but I can't think of any (criminal case) file where people have sold to children or targeted them."

Reforming New Jersey's drug-free zone law as Corzine and crew suggest would be an improvement, but it would still be aimed primarily at low-level urban minority drug dealers. Better to limit it to cases of actual sales of drugs to youths, or repeal it outright.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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I think these cops need a vacation...

send them to visit their brothers in blue over in Holland!

"Drug Free" zones

Another common scenario people don't take into account or realize is that anyone "suspicious" is followed into one of these zones. Cops will tail someone until the individual eventually drives near a park or school etc, get pulled over and thus fall victim to this scheme.

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