Yesterday the New Jersey State Assembly passed a bill, already approved by the state Senate, that allows judges to waive heretofore mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses committed in "drug-free zones." Under state law, such zones include any place within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of a park, library, museum, or public housing project. Selling drugs (or possessing them with intent to sell) within that area triggers a mandatory minimum sentence of three years. The bill abolishing that rule, which Gov. Jon S. Corzine has promised to sign, follows years of lobbying by critics who argue that drug-free zones, aimed mainly at shielding children from drug dealers, arbitrarily increase the punishment for disproprtionately black and Hispanic defendants whose offenses have nothing to do with children. The zones are defined broadly enough to include most or all of many cities.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, at least 35 states, along with the federal government, have laws similar to New Jersey's. Ben Barlyn, who as executive director of the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing co-authored a 2006 report that was highly critical of drug-free zones, hopes the state legislature's action will get the reform ball rolling:
Drug-free zone laws, such as New Jersey's, have attracted widespread criticism from reformers, the judiciary and law enforcement officials alike as being ineffective and costly. From Utah to Illinois to Connecticut to Pennsylvania there has been movement toward reform. This change in New Jersey will perhaps provoke change in other states as well.