Progressives worry about consequences of new ‘tough on crime’ bills
Sen. Vin Gopal said the Legislature must be "responsive" to rises in crime statewide. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)
Progressives and community advocates are pushing back against Democratic lawmakers who are sponsoring a series of tough-on-crime bills, arguing legislators are using outdated tactics that threaten to roll back hard-fought criminal justice reforms.
Democrats in recent weeks have introduced or advanced bills that would establish new crimes and upgrade penalties for existing crimes, targeting people accused of everything from auto theft to assaulting youth sports leaders to possessing fentanyl. Eight such bills advanced out of Senate committees Monday.
“What worries me is that we’ll be increasingly increasing penalties and putting more people in jails,” said Marleina Ubel of the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a Trenton-based progressive think tank. “We know it will impact the most vulnerable in New Jersey, which has the highest Black/white disparity in incarceration in the country,” she said.
Ubel noted one bill that would redefine burglary by removing the intent to commit a crime from the law, meaning someone who enters a house but doesn’t steal could still be charged with a second-degree felony. Under the bill, the accused would face a minimum of five years in prison.
Other bills would extend sentences for repeat car thieves and create a new, separate provision for stolen cars; upgrade auto theft crimes committed by juveniles and establish a crime for participants in auto theft rings; upgrade other car trafficking crimes; and expand penalties for stealing a master car key.
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), prime sponsor of those bills, defended them as common sense measures necessary to keep the public safe. He said new data on an increase in auto thefts proves lawmakers need to take a closer look at what’s driving the rise.
Another sponsor, Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), agreed. He said he holds biweekly meetings to discuss auto thefts, and noted one house was hit three times within a few weeks.
“Crime is through the roof, and we’ve got to be responsive, and we’ve got individuals who are hitting the same houses multiple times, so I think these are just good steps to try to deter crime,” Gopal said in a phone interview.
The Murphy administration says a spike in car thefts seen when the pandemic began is showing signs of slowing. Car thefts were down 13% when comparing September to December 2022 with the same period the prior year, according to figures the Attorney General’s Office provided to NJ Advance Media. There were 4,734 car thefts reported from September to December of last year, compared to 5,420 during the same months in 2021.
Activists claim the policies touted by Sarlo, Gopal, and other Democrats are reminiscent of 1990s-era crime bills responsible for a dramatic rise in the prison population. In December, the ACLU and 20 other groups sent a letter to Senate and Assembly members opposing bills they say “aren’t based on evidence, data or justice. They rely on biased and inaccurate claims … for political gains at an enormous human cost.”
A bill aimed at upgrading penalties for crimes involving dealing or possessing heroin and/or fentanyl was slammed by activists during a three-hour hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday.
Many of the witnesses, including counselors and people in recovery from heroin addiction, expressed fear the legislation would take away opportunities for people struggling with addiction. Instead, they said, the bills, if signed into law, would land them in jail, cutting off their access to social services.
New penalties might lead to people thinking twice if they witness an overdose, and would eventually lead some to take other, stronger synthetic opioids to avoid new legal risks associated with fentanyl, warned Caitlin O’Neill, co-director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition.
“The demand for the street drug market is not going away, and it has not gone away in the 50-plus years of harsher drug war enforcement. What these bills will do is destroy the people who use drugs and the people who live in neighborhoods targeted by the drug overdose,” said O’Neill, a survivor of an opioid overdose.
Gopal said his office is looking at what witnesses “weighed in on at the hearings, and we’ll take their testimonies and try to navigate their concerns.”
Sarlo stressed the legislation is aimed at drug dealers, not people struggling with addiction. New Jersey had the 17th highest rate of overdose deaths in the country in 2019, according to federal data.
“We’re not going after folks with addiction or mental health. We know bail reform is working at keeping people out of jail, and we’re going to continue down that path,” he said. “We’re looking at the repeat offenders who are creating these networks and trafficking young kids, so no, we’re not going backwards.”
Ubel argued none of the bills advanced Monday would accomplish that intent. She’d rather see investments in diversion programs, local initiatives, community street teams, harm reduction services, housing, and access to mental health services and health care.
She added her concerns aren’t those just of progressive advocates — community leaders and residents who don’t want to see increasing crime rates oppose them as well.
“We all want safe communities. These bills might actually make it worse,” she said.
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