Lawmakers Consider Local Drug Courts to Free Up Current System, Encourage Treatment

Lilo H. Stainton | November 7, 2019 | Social
Measure, which has been ten years in the making, would be for nonviolent drug-related cases
Credit: Twenty20
Supporters of the measure say it would take pressure off municipal courts.

A decade after it was first introduced, New Jersey lawmakers finally will consider a proposal to allow counties to create new local drug courts for nonviolent drug-related cases.

The aim is to ease the burden on the municipal court system and encourage substance abuse treatment.

A bill introduced every legislative session since 2009 by Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) would enable any interested county to establish its own “central municipal drug court” with the power to require eligible adults to attend treatment programs or community service sessions, instead of being incarcerated. The measure, which she said takes a health care approach, is scheduled for a hearing Thursday before the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee, in the first legislative session in months.

“We are acknowledging that, when it comes to certain crimes committed under the influence, there are more effective sentencing options to employ,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), a lead sponsor of the measure. “The reality is addiction doesn’t end behind bars and by getting people the help they need to stay clean through community-based treatment programs we’re reducing the cost of New Jersey’s criminal justice system.”

Under the bill, the governor would appoint judges based on the recommendations of county leaders; the judges would have the power to rule on cases involving minor nonviolent felonies, like drug possession or shoplifting, certain drug-related crimes, or disorderly persons offenses involving illegal substances. It would also allow local governments to hire an attorney to serve as a prosecutor for the system and permit them to appoint someone to serve as a public defender for those who could not afford an attorney.

More than 6.1 million cases of all kinds were filed in the 515 courts that make up New Jersey’s municipal system (some towns share services) in the year preceding June 2018, according to the New Jersey Judiciary’s latest annual report, a 2% increase over the previous 12 months. There was a 16% backlog as of June 2018, but that represented a 35% reduction over past years.

That backlog has likely declined more in the last year; in January the New Jersey Supreme Court dismissed nearly 790,000 outstanding cases and bench warrants that had been pending at least 16 years. The move followed a court committee report that called for major changes to improve fairness and independence in the municipal system. These courts handle minor nonviolent crimes, property crimes as well as driving and parking offenses and reportedly collect more than $400 million in fines and penalties annually, which cover operations costs and provide hundreds of millions of dollars to local budgets.

Local courts ‘overwhelmed’

“Affording counties the choice to establish municipal drug courts that specifically deal with minor drug-related offenses creates room for a more expeditious and fair judicial process,” said Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Essex), another lead sponsor of the measure. “Right now, many of our local courts are overwhelmed by the number of cases on their docket and creating a central court will help lift the burden.”

New Jersey already has a drug court system as part of the criminal division of the state Superior Court, or trial court system. Dating to 1996 and expanded significantly under former Gov. Chris Christie to become a statewide system, it’s designed to provide treatment options for nonviolent offenders facing more serious drug-related charges than those handled in municipal court. As of August, there were nearly 6,700 individuals enrolled in its drug court programs, which can be completed in two years, according to state statistics.

Turner said these Superior Court drug courts have “proven effective” at providing “a path to recovery” to individuals with substance use disorders. She said that expanding access to treatment through local court systems makes sense.

“Municipal courts are often an addict’s first encounter with the criminal justice system, and they can serve as a helpful diversion opportunity for people with substance abuse disorders,” she said. “Drug use is more of a health issue than a criminal issue, and it is a lot less expensive to rehabilitate than incarcerate.”

The legislation (A-5234) would amend a statute that governs the creation of municipal courts and allows for multiple jurisdictions to join together to create a jointly-operated “central municipal court” to serve multiple towns. The bill adds language to this law to permit county ordinances for the establishment of a “central municipal drug court” to adjudicate minor drug-related cases that occurred within the county.

County executives or the county’s governing body would recommend judges to the governor, who would appoint them with Senate approval. The judges could require individuals to perform community service or attend treatment instead of going to prison; if they did not follow through, the court could revoke the offer and impose a traditional jail sentence instead.