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(TRENTON) — Legislation Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman and Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson sponsored to restore judicial discretion in certain drug cases prosecuted through the state’s Drug-Free School Zone was signed into law today by Governor Jon S. Corzine.

“Our current Drug-Free School Zone law does not work,” said Watson Coleman (D-Mercer). “The mandatory minimum sentencing the zones require has effectively created two different sentences for the same crime, depending on where an individual lives. This is geographic discrimination at its most basic, and it is something to which I am adamantly opposed. I applaud the Governor for signing this bill into law.”

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 of the new law 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 dubious distinction having the highest percentage of non-violent offenders – 35 percent – imprisoned for a drug offense in the entire nation.

“Our insistence on mandatory minimums combined with the disparate geographic distribution of Drug-Free School Zones has created a situation in which 96 percent of the individuals imprisoned for dealing drugs within the zones are black or Hispanic,” said Johnson (D-Bergen), chairman of the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee. “When a policy so disproportionately affects a single group, we must take corrective action.”

Assuming that the average annual cost of probation or parole will be about $10,000 per participant, for each individual who remains on parole or probation as opposed to incarceration, the state would save $29,000, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

Court statistics show that during 2008, 3,622 defendants were convicted of distribution of a controlled substance within 1,000 of school property or a school bus.

The Watson Coleman/Johnson legislation (A-2762) will authorize a court to allow consideration of parole or probation on a case-by-case basis for certain individuals convicted of distributing, dispensing, or possessing with the intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance while on or within a Drug Free School Zone.

“This is a progressive solution to a complex problem that frankly shouldn’t exist in New Jersey,” said Johnson. “Judges will now be able to consider more than simply whether a drug crime was committed in a Drug-Free School Zone.”

“This legislation strikes the right prosecutorial balance,” said Watson Coleman. “Judges will once again be able to weigh all of the facts of a case against the sentence to be imposed.

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