I saw someone’s funny company tee shirt the other day. It read, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” A similar sounding motto might well be descriptive of the NJ Assembly’s approach to mitigating the state’s opiate crisis, “The punishment will continue until you get well.” In a shocking display of willful ignorance and inverted logic, the Assembly last month voted 66 yes, 2 no, 5 abstain and 7 not present, to increase criminal sentences for heroin.
The bill’s objective is to permit prosecutions for drug distribution (and intent to distribute) to proceed using a lower standard of “units” as opposed to the current “weight.” While the stated goal is to facilitate the imprisonment of “drug kingpins,” the result will be more addicts who are hoarding heroin for later use, getting locked up. Merely re-classifying someone a “distributor,” rather than a “possessor,” will do next to nothing in enhancing any effort to round-up heroin sellers. Instead, the list of negative consequences of this measure is as long as your arm.
- The drug laws have already exacerbated the racial disparate impact that is rife in our criminal justice system while this proposal will largely just place more black and brown people behind bars.
- It is well understood that jails are the least effective and most expensive method in dealing with addictions. This legislation would put more folks in to detention and out of treatment. Speaking of cost, the Dept. of Corrections estimates this proposed law will incarcerate an extra 179 inmates to the tune of up to $7.7m. Meanwhile, the Office of Legislative Services’ projection suggests that that figure is too low! The OLS, however, did not weigh in with its’ own fiscal impact number.
- Certain persons convicted of drug possession offenses are able to receive General Assistance (welfare) benefits and emergency housing help upon release from prison. People with drug distribution charges are ineligible for these programs.
- Certain persons convicted of drug possession offenses can participate in a drug court program. People with drug distribution charges are ineligible. Thus, some people who might have benefited from the treatment discipline of drug court, will instead become wards of the state.
So, A.783, and its’ companion bill in the Senate (S.211), represents bad fiscal policy, bad corrections policy, bad drug treatment policy, bad social and racial policy, and bad prisoner reentry policy.
One can only hope that the Senate will look at this wrong-headed legislation with a better informed and refined thinking.