It's time to break the cycle

With the so-called “war on drugs” now in its fourth decade, the resultant casualties have left many to note that this disastrous policy has replaced slavery and the Jim Crow laws as a way to disenfranchise minorities in America.

The statistics speak for themselves.

One in every 15 African-American men and one in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in the United States, in comparison to one in every 106 white men.

These rates have been greatly attributed to the change in drug possession penalties brought on by the “war on drugs.” Since the 1980s, federal penalties for crack cocaine, for example, have become 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine. While possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine results in a 5-year prison term, possession of only 5 grams of crack cocaine results in a 5-year prison term.

Who does this disproportionately affect? Low-income individuals, many of whom are minorities and inner city residents.

Even more important to note, only 7.6 percent of federal cocaine prosecutions and 1.8 percent of federal crack cocaine prosecutions are for high-level trafficking. What this means is that those incarcerated for drug crimes, overall, are typically low-level offenders who are going to see their lives destroyed by an unforgiving system that does not allow for second chances.

Many of these young, first-time, nonviolent offenders are thrown into jail, exposed to gang activity and other harsh elements, and when they get out, they are disqualified from many of the programs designed to help people pull themselves up by their boot straps — housing assistance, job recruitment programs, federal student loans.

Perhaps unbeknownst to them, the cycle of recidivism, fueled by futility, has already started. As U.S Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey wisely noted, “Hopelessness is a really toxic and dangerous state.”

Leading experts from all across the political and criminal justice spectrum agree. The current system benefits no one — not the individuals who are disproportionately incarcerated, not the communities held hostage by the cycle of recidivism, and not the law-abiding taxpayers who are forced to shoulder the cost of the highest incarceration rate in the developed world. New Jersey has been a national leader in reducing recidivism rates, but more can be done to build on that successful foundation. It’s time to break this cycle and offer a real shot at a second chance, not just empty rhetoric.

It’s with all of this in mind that I’ve put forth a package of bills that is working its way through the Legislature to help reform our judicial system and change our approach to incarceration.

The package takes a systematic and pragmatic approach to our judicial system:

  • A-4008 will assess the effectiveness of treatment and reentry programs to gauge what’s working and what’s not.
  • A-4244 will address the root of the problem for those with substance abuse and mental health issues by creating a six-year pilot re-entry program to provide an alternative to incarceration for offenders who would benefit from community treatment services instead of jail time.
  • A-4243 will establish a six-year alternative parole eligibility pilot program for certain non-violent offenders who serve 85 percent of their time.
  • A-4007 will create a more inclusive judicial system, one where low-income defendants can feel like they are getting a fair shake from a jury that is truly comprised of their peers by expanding the pool from which jurors are selected.
  • A-4273 will establish a vocational training pilot program in prisons that reflects the state’s emerging industry and business workforce needs to help increase an inmate’s chance for employment and successful reentry into society.
  • Cumulatively, these bills will create possibilities for those who might otherwise have none; hope for those who see none; and futures for those who never imagined one.

Unless we tackle these challenges head on, many current and future nonviolent offenders will continue to be a burden on the state, their communities and their families. With these proposals, it’s my hope that someone who serves his or her time will, hopefully, walk out with a second chance at life, not a life sentence.

 

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