TRENTON – The Senate Judiciary 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.
“This bill distinguishes people who need treatment from people who need incarceration,” said Senator Adler, D-Cherry Hill and Chair of the Committee. “Let’s help 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 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 drug courts succeed because the program emphasizes treatment over punishment for drug users,” said Senator Turner. “We should be making every effort to expand this program, because treatment is the most effective way of rehabilitating these individuals. The goal of our criminal justice system should not be to punish, but to prevent crimes from happening again.”
Senator Adler added, “New Jersey’s drug courts have become one of the most successful parts of the State’s criminal justice system. Their treatment program is four times more effective in preventing repeat offenses than jail, costs less and addresses the underlying problem of addiction that lead to the crime in the first place. We need to expand access to the Drug Courts so that we can provide even more drug offenders with treatment.”
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.
“Given that the treatment program is aimed at ending the underlying addiction that led to these crimes, prosecutors should have more flexibility in determining if the drug court system is a better option,” said Senator Adler.
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 benefits of allowing outpatient treatment are twofold – those people with less severe addictions will be able to keep a job while going through treatment and more inpatient beds will be freed 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.
And 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%.
Senator Turner said that 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 8-1 and now goes to the full Senate for consideration.