Though her attorney has characterized it as “an honest mistake,” a single mother of two is facing at least three years in prison, without parole, for bringing a gun into New Jersey.
Shaneen Allen was stopped in Atlantic County, NJ, at 1:07 a.m. on October 1, 2013, for an unsafe lane change, according to charging documents. She informed the cop that she possessed a .380 Bersa Thunder handgun and hollow-point bullets. While she apparently has a valid Pennsylvania Licence to Carry Firearm, New Jersey does not permit transporting these arms and does not have a reciprocity agreement with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
New Jersey’s Graves Act establishes mandatory minimum sentences and parole ineligibility for illegal gun possession. If convicted, this means Allen would have to serve at least three years for the violation. Though some non-violent defendants in New Jersey can be diverted to a pretrial intervention program, focusing on rehabilitation, the prosecutor in this case denied the Allen the necessary waiver, in February. A spokesman for Atlantic County Prosecutor James P. McClain, a Chris Christie appointee, told ThinkProgress that McClain, “has declined to comment about particulars of a prosecution in-progress, or in response to recent media stories.”
This is not the first case in which McClain has prosecuted illegal gun violations of Pennsylvanians who brought their guns into New Jersey. His website notes convictions in two cases in the past two years, including one in which the Superior Court judge told the jury that, “permits must be obtained in accordance with New Jersey law. Therefore, a non-resident gun owner may not avoid New Jersey’s gun control laws on the basis that possession of the weapon was legal in the owner’s state of residence and that the owner was merely transporting weapons through New Jersey without criminal intent and knowledge that New Jersey would regard the possession as illegal.”
Without knowing the prosecutor’s reasoning or all of the facts of this ongoing case, it is difficult to evaluate whether it was really an “honest mistake” or not. But while in the past, such a determination would have been left up to a judge, thanks to the Graves Act, it is now effectively up to the sole discretion of the prosecutor. Two of the critics of this case — Radley Balko of the Washington Post and John Lott Jr. of the Crime Research Prevention Center — agree that one of the biggest problems underlying the Shaneen case: mandatory minimum laws in general. Lott told Fox News that “These mandatory sentences sometimes create really unfortunate results,” especially for minority women like Shaneen. And Blaco cited a 2011 U.S. Sentencing Commission report that found that mandatory minimum sentencing for gun crimes has lead to a significant racial disparity in charges, convictions, and “enhancement” penalties.
And it is not just gun laws that produce these often unfair — and racially disparate — results. Mandatory minimums for even non-violence drug offenders have put thousands of people in jail for life without parole. Indeed Gov. Christie said in April that drug sentencing laws needed reform, arguing that “If, in fact, that we believe life is precious — and I do — then the life of the drug-addicted teenager, who has been arrested for the sixth time, is just as precious as the lives of any one of my children. The life of the 45-year-old lawyer, who is addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol is just as precious as any one of the prosecutors who ever worked for me.”
Some conservative gun law opponents have seized on the case as an argument against strict gun laws. The National Review’s editors use it as a call for “concealed-carry reciprocity” to be established “at the national level.” Pro-gun activists have proposed a federal requirement that every state recognized the concealed carry permits from every other state. But some states have very lax application processes and some even automatically restore gun rights to those convicted of state crimes after completion of sentences. Passage of such a system would allow the states with the weakest protections to effectively force their rules on everyone else.