A real path to ‘social justice’ among drug offenders
Much is being made lately about the need to raise revenue and fight for social justice by legalizing marijuana. The talking point starts with the high number of black young people who are arrested and incarcerated due to the unfair and unjust laws making pot illegal.
Governor-Elect Phil Murphy has vowed to change this in his crusade for social justice by legalizing it in his first one hundred days. His campaign promise is hitting the political reality that not everyone agrees this is the best thing for our state, not just in revenue terms, but in terms of the goal of "social justice." As a matter of fact, I've discussed the issue raised by Sen. Joe Pennachio that, according to some stats, the arrest rates for young blacks and Hispanics rose in at least one state that legalized pot.
So let's discuss the social justice angle of the legalization issue. Whether or not the arrests of minority are spiking as a direct result of legalization we don't yet know. We do know that in Colorado they are rising dramatically. So either way, legalization is certainly not a magic wand to fix a justice system that some politicians — like Cory Booker — say unfairly targets minority communities. He's gone so far as to introduce federal legislation to address the issue. Of course, that's unlikely to get any traction under the current majority in Congress so if the issue is to be addressed beyond a political talking point, we have to act at home.
But the question of legalization is hitting resistance in the Garden State and for good reason. First, there was Sen. Ron Rice saying exactly the opposite suggesting that legalization might make things worse in minority communities. Then, I had a conversation with former Morris County Prosecutor Bob Bianchi on the show Wednesday regarding what he thinks is the real reason for the racial imbalance among people incarcerated for drug offenses...mandatory minimum sentences.
One of the components of the mandatory minimums is the law that stipulates that drug offenses within a certain range of a school or public park would carry a minimum sentence in state prison. Cities like Newark, Jersey City, Camden and others in NJ only have a few streets that are not within the legal proximity to fall under the minimum sentence guidelines. So communities with a high number of minorities committing the same offense as a white person in the suburbs will likely fall under the category simply because the suburban offender will most likely not be within the range of a school causing the mandatory minimum sentence to be applied.
So doesn't this beg the question, why doesn't the incoming governor address the mandatory minimum sentence guideline first? Is there any legislator that would disagree that the racial disparity could almost be wiped out if minority offenders in the cities were treated the same as white offenders in the suburbs?
Instead of grandstanding on the vague idea of "social justice," which isn't bearing out in at least one state that is used as the best example for the proponents of legalization, how about focusing on practical and immediate changes that could achieve real social justice almost overnight? Let's overturn mandatory minimum sentencing when it comes to drug offenses and allow prosecutors and judges to do their jobs making decisions on a case-by-case basis.
If there's ever a story to exemplify the immediate need for this, just listen to the story Bob shared with us on the show. He told our audience of his first prosecution involving a father who found a vial of drugs on the street, quickly sold it and used the case to buy turkey for his wife and kids for that Thanksgiving. He was subject to a minimum of three years in state prison without parole. As his wife and children wept in the courtroom, Bob considered quitting as a prosecutor. I'm happy he didn't, of course, as he is now a voice of reason and experience helping us shed a light on the true injustice in our legal system, mandatory sentences, which strip judges of the ability to have compassion, and common sense when someone is truly not a threat to society.
Hope the Governor-Elect and the Democratic leaders in the Legislature get the message.
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