Opinion: Proposed reforms boost chances for offenders to re-enter society successfully

With the so-called "war on drugs" now in its fourth decade, its 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 is incarcerated in the United States, compared with 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 five-year prison term, possession of only five grams of crack cocaine results in a five-year prison term.

Who does this disproportionately affect? Low-income individuals, many of whom are often 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 brought for high-level trafficking. What this means is that people who are 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 and 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 bootstraps: housing assistance, job recruitment programs and federal student loans.

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

Leading experts from across the political and criminal justice spectra 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 across the country 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 the cycle and offer those who have served their time a real shot at a second chance, not just empty rhetoric.

It's with 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.

A4008 will assess the effectiveness of treatment and re-entry programs, to gauge what's working and what's not.

A4244 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.

A4243 will establish a six-year alternative parole eligibility pilot program for certain nonviolent offenders who serve 85 percent of their time.

A4007 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.

A4273 will also, and importantly, establish a vocational training pilot program in prisons that reflects the state's emerging industry and business workforce needs in order to help increase an inmate's chances for employment and successful re-entry into society.

Cumulatively, these bills will create possibilities for those who might otherwise have none; hope for those who see none; and a future 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.

Troy Singleton is a Democrat who represents the 7th Legislative District in the New Jersey General Assembly.

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