By Edward J. Heaton
Recently, there was a home invasion in Millburn, New Jersey that received much media attention. The incident involved a woman who was violently assaulted in her own home by a career criminal. The man has been arrested, charged, and faces up to 25 years in jail if convicted of all counts.
Last year, there was a case involving Norman Smith, who is one of the founders of Project Freedom. Project Freedom is a non-profit that provides accessible housing for people with disabilities. Norman’s home was invaded, too, and he and his family were viciously attacked. However, the public response was much different. When Norman’s attacker’s case came to court, a plea bargain had been arranged granting the attacker pre-trial intervention and no charges on his record if he completed it. The attacker was a Robbinsville, New Jersey police sergeant who claimed that he had a neurological brain condition which caused him to attack Norman and his family.
I would not go public with Norman’s name except for the fact that he decided to go public himself. In an article published the day after his attacker’s sentencing, Norman said, “It has been extremely rough for all four of us since that night….We continue to be in counseling for the emotional pain that we suffered and the physical injuries inflicted on Shirley [Norman’s wife]….”
I am angered and concerned by the disparity in the public response to the two cases. A white woman, in Millburn, is attacked by a black perpetrator, and the whole region responds. It should be noted that Millburn is a high-income suburb in New Jersey, that, according to the 2010 census, is 80.17% white with an average median income of $165,603 per year. Project Freedom residents, on the other hand, are people with disabilities who are limited by HUD guidelines to an income of between $24,600 and $58,000 for a family of three.
Was the attack on Norman and his family any less horrific than the attack on the woman in Millburn? No, of course not. This is not to discount what happened to the Millburn woman, but to point out the differences in response and resolution of the cases in question.
One must also take into account that according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of violent crime against disabled males was 26 per thousand, as compared to 16 per thousand for non-disabled males. Not only do we have a population of lower income being victimized by violent crime, they are being attacked at a higher rate.
The other thing I find absolutely appalling is the justification used by the Robbinsville police sergeant to gain pre-trial intervention. According to published reports, he has a “neurological brain condition,” which caused him to attack Norman and his family. So, is society saying that if you have a brain condition you can attack other persons with disabilities and be relieved of the responsibility of serving time for the crime, because of your own disability? It certainly seems that way. The difference in both response and pending resolution of these two similar crimes – violent home invasions and assaults — calls out for a solution of its own.
I propose “Norman’s Law”, based on the “Graves Law” of New Jersey that states that any perpetrator of a criminal act who uses a gun receives a mandatory three-year sentence. “Norman’s Law” would do the same thing for people who commit serious criminal acts – rape, robbery, sexual assault, and other forms of violent assault – against people with disabilities. In addition to the mandatory three-year sentence, I would add a stipulation that 85% of the sentence must be served before a person convicted of such crimes becomes eligible for parole.
This may not prevent violent crime against people with disabilities in the future, but it will go a long way toward making sure that plea deals, such as the type negotiated in Robbinsville, will not be allowed to happen again.