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Senator Norcross Introduces Bills To Reform Bail System, Expand Drug Court Initiative

TRENTON – Senator Donald Norcross today introduced two bills aimed at reforming the state’s criminal justice system, by keeping the most dangerous offenders off the streets until trial and helping non-violent offenders struggling with substance abuse obtain treatment.

The first measure would allow voters to decide whether to give judges discretion in determining if a person charged with a crime should be held without bail prior to trial. The proposed Constitutional Amendment would provide judges with the ability to prevent violent offenders from committing additional acts of violence by denying pre-trial bail.

“Offenders who have committed heinous crimes in the community and demonstrate that they are a continued threat to the public should not be released back onto our streets to commit additional violent acts,” said Senator Norcross (D-Camden/Gloucester). “Providing judges with the ability to use discretion in deciding whether to allow bail will ensure there is an effective system to safeguard our residents against the state’s most dangerous offenders.”

A 2007 report by the US Department of Justice showed that 33 percent of individuals charged with a felony in the state courts studied committed one or more types of misconduct within a year of being released prior to the disposition of their case. Of those individuals, a bench warrant for failure to appear in court was issued for 23 percent. An estimated 17 percent were arrested for a new offense, 11 percent of those for a felony.

Under the proposed Constitutional Amendment, in order to deny pretrial release, a court would have to find that no amount of bail, pretrial release conditions or combination of bail and conditions would assure the defendant’s appearance for trial or the integrity of the court is maintained. A court could deny pretrial release to protect the safety of any person, such as a witness or victim, or the community. The measure would bring the state bail system in line with the federal structure.

The second bill would expand the state’s successful drug court initiative to provide mandatory drug treatment to non-violent drug-addicted offenders. The bill aims to reduce recidivism and provide non-violent offenders with the treatment they need to be productive in the community.

“Expansion of the drug court program will provide a way out of the cycle of addiction and crime for individuals who are struggling with substance abuse and have been trapped in that life by their disease,” said Senator Norcross. “It will prioritize treatment over incarceration, setting forth a more effective and humane approach to rehabilitating offenders.”

Drug Courts were established in New Jersey in 1996 when Camden and Essex County Superior Courts began accepting individuals to the program, according to the State Judiciary. The program had expanded statewide by 2004 and, to date, has diverted more than 8,500 offenders into treatment and rehabilitation. Currently the program allows participation only to certain offenders who actively seek admission into the Drug Court program. The legislation would allow a judge to mandate drug treatment to certain drug-addicted offenders through sentencing.

Specifically, the bill would require that:

• Information on drug addiction and treatment be provided to individuals charged with second and third degree offenses.

• Court-ordered clinical assessments be conducted to determine whether and to what extent a person is drug dependent and would benefit from treatment.

• The court make a determination as to whether a defendant is drug addicted. If the court determines the individual is a drug dependent person and meets eligibility for the program, offenders would be sentenced to the drug court program regardless of whether they apply.

The bills are awaiting committee referral.

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