TRENTON � The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved legislation today sponsored by Senators John H. Adler and Shirley K. Turner that would make changes to the State�s Drug Court program that would allow more drug offenders to seek treatment for addiction.
�Our criminal justice system must better distinguish between people who need treatment and people who need incarceration,� said Senator Adler, D-Cherry Hill. �We should focus on helping sick people get well and save our prison space for real criminals.�
The Senators� bill, S-233/504, implements the recommendations of the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing for amending to the special probation statute that governs the drug courts. Specifically, the bill would amend the special probation statute to expand eligibility for the program, authorize out-patient treatment under certain circumstances, and permit courts to reduce drug enforcement and demand reduction (DEDR) fines under certain circumstances.
�The success of the drug court system lies in its emphasis on treatment over punishment for drug users,� said Senator Turner. �Given that treatment is the most effective way of rehabilitating these individuals, we should be making every effort to expand this program. The aim of our criminal justice system should be to punish to when necessary, while striving to prevent future crimes from happening.�
Senator Adler added, �Drug courts are one of the most successful parts of the State�s criminal justice system. The treatment program has been found to be four times more effective than jail in preventing repeat offenses while costing less and addressing the underlying problem of addiction. Our goal should be to get as many drug offenders as possible into the drug courts� treatment programs.�
The bill would make four changes to the current law. First, it would amend eligibility criteria to clarify that there are two tracks to getting into the special probation program and to bar a person from drug court where they have two or more convictions for a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree crime if at least one of the prior convictions is a 1st or 2nd degree crime, but allow them to participate if that person has two or more prior 3rd degree convictions, subject to the prosecutor�s veto.
Second, the bill would amend treatment conditions to eliminate the requirement that a person who receives special probation be sentenced to a period of inpatient treatment for six months and replace with judicial discretion to determine whether placement should be residential or nonresidential after a substance abuse evaluation.
�The drug court system needs to be more flexible � for prosecutors in determining if the drug court system is more appropriate in a given case and for judges who can put those people with less severe addictions in outpatient treatment so that inpatient beds will be free up for people with more severe addictions,� explained Senator Turner.
Third, the bill would amend discharge provisions to provide for early discharge from the 5-year special probation term if the person makes exemplary progress in the course of treatment, upon recommendation of the supervising probation officer or court�s own motion if the person: 1) has satisfactorily completed the treatment program; 2) has served at least two years of special probation; 3) did not commit a substantial violation of special probation within the preceding 12 months; and 4) is not likely to relapse or commit an offense if probation supervision and related services are discontinued.
Finally, the bill would amend penalty provisions to allow the court to reduce the DEDR fines by 50% if the offender completes the program and, in cases where the collection of the penalty will cause extreme financial hardship, reduce it by up to another 50%.
According to the sponsors, the changes to the drug court program outlined in this bill would expand the program by a third, allowing about 400 more people to participate in the program each year.
The bill passed the Committee by a vote of 10-2 and now goes to the full Senate for consideration.