New Law Will Expand NJ’s Drug Court Program

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Governor Chris Christie signs into law legislation to put in place a statewide, mandatory drug court program while visiting the Rescue Mission of Trenton in Trenton, N.J. on Thursday, July 19, 2012. . The legislation, S-881, acts on the principles that no life is disposable and that it is a commonsense, fiscal, and moral imperative to help individuals dealing with drug addiction reclaim their lives with treatment, rather than warehousing them in prison. (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

Gov. Chris Christie signs into law legislation to put in place a statewide, mandatory drug court program while visiting the Rescue Mission of Trenton  on Thursday.  (Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen)

TRENTON – Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law to phase in statewide mandatory sentencing to New Jersey’s drug court program for nonviolent offenders.

“We will no longer simply warehouse individuals in prison who are not a threat to society while the underlying cause of their criminality goes unaddressed,” Christie said. “And we won’t wait for them to come to the conclusion that they need treatment on their own. With this legislation we are building on our record of reducing recidivism, reclaiming lives by breaking the vicious cycle of crime and addiction, and doing so in a way that is less costly and more effective in getting results.”

“Drug Court saved the life of one of the intruders who broke into my home and robbed me in the middle of the night three years ago, and the program made our community safer by giving him an opportunity to kick his drug habit and lead a productive, crime free life,” said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union.)

“Unfortunately, his partner in crime was not eligible to receive the intensive treatment for his drug addiction provided by our drug courts because of prior offenses. The time that he served in jail was more costly and less likely to aid his recovery or lessen his likelihood of committing another crime. This law expands access to the life-saving, cost-saving and crime-preventing opportunities provided by our drug courts to thousands of criminal offenders struggling with drug addiction. Our communities will be safer and taxpayer costs will be saved as our prison population is reduced as a result.”

The new law (A-2883/S-881) will phase in mandatory drug court for nonviolent offenders over a 5-year period. Currently, participation in the drug court program is voluntary. The program will be phased in, in at least three vicinages to be determined by the Administrative Office of the Courts in the first year.

Under the law, the courts would have to evaluate the program’s effectiveness annually for the duration of the phase-in period (including studying recidivism rates, costs and comparisons of counties where the mandatory program has been implemented to those where it has not been phased in).

“This measure is designed to build upon the success of the drug court program by mandating participation in the program for certain individuals,” said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union). “Many drug offenders get worse in prison and are then released back to their communities. Considering the potential societal benefits, requiring these type of offenders to participate in the program makes sense.”

The law will require certain defendants to undergo a professional diagnostic assessment to determine whether, and to what extent, the defendant is drug dependent and would benefit from treatment. This assessment would be ordered for any defendant who: (1) is reasonably suspected to be drug dependent; (2) is ineligible for probation due to a conviction for a crime that is subject to a presumption of incarceration or a mandatory minimum period of parole ineligibility; and (3) meets the legal criteria for admission to the “drug court” program.

If, based on the results of the professional diagnostic assessment, the court determines the defendant is drug dependent and otherwise eligible to be sentenced to the drug court program, the court would be required to sentence the defendant to the drug court program unless it finds it is required to impose a sentence of imprisonment pursuant to Chapters 43 and 44 of the Criminal Code.

The law provides two exceptions to mandatory sentencing to the drug court program: when the court finds a sentence of imprisonment should be imposed; or when the court is clearly convinced that 1) the defendant would receive adequate treatment, monitoring and supervision under an ordinary sentence of probation, 2) the defendant’s needs would not be better served by a sentence to the program, 3) no danger to the community would result from a sentence to regular probation, and 4) a sentence to regular probation would be consistent with the sentencing provisions of the Criminal Code.

As a result of the drug court program’s multifaceted approach to crime and addiction, drug court participants have a far lower recidivism rate than offenders who are incarcerated in state prisons.

The Department of Corrections tracked drug offenders released from prison for three years after their release. It found that 54 percent of drug offenders were arrested for an indictable offense and 43 percent were reconvicted, while 16 percent of drug offenders who graduated from a drug court program were arrested and 8 percent were reconvicted three years after graduating from the program.

The Department of Corrections tracked drug offenders released from prison for three years after their release. It found that 54 percent of drug offenders were arrested for an indictable offense and 43 percent were reconvicted, while 16 percent of drug offenders who graduated from a drug court program were arrested and 8 percent were reconvicted three years after graduating from the program.


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