NJ Scraps Mandatory Minimum Sentencing For Drug Dealers

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TRENTON—New Jersey is moving away from mandatory minimum sentencing laws that represent a tough on crime posture in the fight against illegal drugs.

By a vote of 46-30 the state Assembly approved legislation sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer) and Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (D-Bergen) that eliminates mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for individuals convicted of selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.

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“Our current Drug-Free School Zone law does not work,” said Watson Coleman.

Currently, anyone convicted of selling drugs, or possessing drugs with the intent of selling them, within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of parks, libraries, museums, or public housing projects faces a mandatory minimum jail sentence of three years and $15,000 in fines.

The sponsors said the application of these mandatory minimums has had the unintended consequence of handcuffing state judges, forcing them to adopt a “one-size-fits-all” approach to sentencing. This has, in turn, given New Jersey the distinction having the highest percentage of non-violent offenders – 35 percent – imprisoned for a drug offense in the entire nation.

Last month, the state Senate approved similar legislation sponsored by Sen. Raymond Lesniak of (D-Elizabeth)

Although the measure would effectively eliminate drug free school zones, Gov. Jon Corzine has indicated that he would sign it.

The Drug-Free School Zone Act was enacted in 1987 to increase penalties for crimes that expose school-age children to the illegal drug trade.

“The purpose of mandatory minimum sentences is to prevent the judicial trivialization of serious drug crimes,” according to David Risley, an assistant U.S. Attorney, who explained that when judges had unbridled discretion to impose sentences punishment for similar defendants varied widely.

“What some judges treated as serious offenses, and punished accordingly, others minimized with much more lenient sentences,” said Risley. “Ironically, more lenient sentences became particularly prevalent in areas with high volumes of major drug crime, such as large metropolitan and drug importation centers.”

“This legislation doesn’t make New Jersey weaker on the prosecution of crime, but instead makes us smarter in how we treat nonviolent offenders,” said Lesniak.


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