Uniformity in Drug Cases: A Noble Myth

Many times, state legislatures react to a perceived threat, in the hope of dealing with an unwanted situation, but too often the supposed solution does not have the intended result. So it is with New Jersey's Brimage Guidelines and New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws, both of which were intended to deal with the great increase in drug cases, and the obvious problem of disparity of sentences caused by the discretion left to the Judges. Neither has hit the mark in dealing with the drug problem.

In fact, the harsh sentencing requirements of the Rockefeller Laws have had the effect of filling the jails of that state with low level users or dealers of small quantities cds, to the exclusion of having sufficient space for more serious criminals. Currently, the New York legislature is in the process of modifying these strict laws to give Judges more discretion in sentencing in these cases. The Brimage Guidelines in New Jersey suffer from a different, but no less troubling set of problems. Enacted to ensure more uniformity in sentencing of drug cases among the twenty-one counties in New Jersey, the guidelines set down a numerical calculation, much like the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, so that once the points for a defendant are totaled, the prosecutors and the courts are required to resolve cases based upon the guideline range. However, because these guidelines are observed in different ways in different counties, they have not had their intended result. Sentencing disparity in drug sentencing is as rampant now as it was before the guidelines were enacted. It is not surprising that in the urban counties, it is possible to negotiate a mush more favorable plea deal than it is in the more rural counties. The goal of equal justice for all is not advanced when certain counties adhere to the mandated guidelines, while other counties largely ignore them.

In the aftermath of several recent United States Supreme Court decisions making the Federal Sentencing Guidelines advisory rather than mandatory, can it be long before New Jersey follows suit and recognizes that Judges should have discretion in sentencing, especially since the counties have treating the Brimage Guidelines differently, and thus they have not accomplished their intended purpose.