Legislature Approves Expansion Of NJ Drug Court Program

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TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senators Raymond J. Lesniak and Nicholas P. Scutari which would expand eligibility for the State’s drug court substance abuse treatment program and create a phased-in pilot program in which any offender who’s eligible would be automatically enrolled in drug court was approved by the Senate Thursday by a vote of 36-1, receiving final legislative approval.

“This bill is about giving criminal drug offenders an opportunity at a second chance at a crime-free life,” said Lesniak, D-Union. “The current practice of incarcerating drug addicts gives them little chance to kick the habit and encourages ordinarily nonviolent offenders to become repeat offenders. This bill puts the focus on addiction recovery and individual rehabilitation, rather than blind incarceration, for offenders who are seeking to overcome substance abuse.”

The bill, S-881, would expand the number of criminal offenders eligible for treatment for drug or alcohol addiction under supervision of the State’s drug court programs by removing some of the disqualifications currently in place for eligibility into those programs. Under the bill, two of the existing mandatory criteria for eligibility – that the offender in question have no more than one prior conviction of a second degree crime, and that the criminal offense in question was committed under the influence or to support drug or alcohol dependency – would be made permissive, rather than mandatory, and the current prohibition against more than one prior conviction for robbery would be eliminated. The result would be that courts would have more discretion in placing individuals in the drug court program. The bill would additionally allow individuals currently serving a sentence of incarceration, or convicted and awaiting a sentence, to request that their eligibility for the drug court program be re-evaluated based on the new criteria.

“The current criminal justice system in this state fails people who are addicted to drugs,” said Scutari, D-Union, Middlesex and Somerset, and the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It fails them because the focus is on warehousing offenders, rather than directing offenders to a rigorous substance abuse treatment program. By giving the courts added discretion, we can hopefully open up the opportunity for recovery and rehabilitation for a number of drug offenders who would otherwise be failed by the system.”

Finally, the bill would phase-in the implementation of a program that would mandate access to special probation under drug court for any offender with a drug problem who is not disqualified from the drug court program under the revised criteria in the bill. The Administrative Director of the Courts would oversee the phase-in and would submit reports to the Governor and the Legislature, beginning the year after the effective date of the bill, tracking the completion and revocation rates for people admitted to drug court, as well as the recidivism rates of graduates, the costs associated with implementing mandatory drug court, and any other information that may indicate the efficacy of the program.

The bill now heads to the Governor to be signed into law.


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