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N.J. study cites costs of drug sentencing

A group said easing laws for nonviolent offenses could save taxpayers millions.

TRENTON - New Jersey could save millions of dollars by easing sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenses, according to a new study by an advocacy group.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a critic of government drug policies, said that New Jersey spent $331 million a year jailing nonviolent drug offenders, and that alternatives to jail in such cases would free more money for investment in the state's poorest families and communities.

The study, which used data from 2003, also said the state lost taxable income by sending nonviolent drug offenders to jail and limiting their future employment.

"We are creating an entire cast of people who will forever be economic and labor-force outsiders," said Roseanne Scotti, the alliance's New Jersey director, at a Trenton news conference.

Scotti said serving a jail sentence reduced a person's earning ability up to 40 percent.

"It is money that would have gone into the larger New Jersey economy," she said.

Instead of jail, she said, nonviolent drug offenders should receive treatment and supervision.

The group said it would push legislators to eliminate mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, starting with a bill that would let a judge waive mandatory sentences for distributing or possessing drugs near a school.

An Assembly committee has approved the bill, and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D., Union) predicted the Legislature would pass it by the end of June.

"The time has come for us to change from throw-away-the-key, lock-'em-up mandatory minimums," said Cryan, who spoke at the news conference. "Let's understand that that hasn't worked."

The report calculated that it cost $90 million to incarcerate 1,915 Newark residents who entered the prison system in 2003, and that each of those residents would lose about $100,000 in lifetime wages because of a prison record.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who also appeared at the news conference, said prison records often forced nonviolent drug offenders "to live on the margins as outcasts" and pushed them back toward drug use.