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New Jersey's Drug Court Program: Making the Sentence Fit the Crime

Initiative sentences nonviolent offenders to treatment, not punishment, but critics question whether it's cost or good policy driving the program

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As U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was unveiling policy changes this summer that would cut the amount of time a nonviolent drug offender spends in federal prison, New Jersey was readying its own initiative to fight drug crime -- an expansion of the state’s drug court program, in which drug offenders are sent into treatment rather than jail.

The two initiatives showed that while Democrats and Republicans seem to be world’s apart these days, there’s one thing on which they agree: the war on drugs has been lost.

As Gov. Chris Christie signed the drug court legislation last year, he criticized the draconian drug laws passed in the wake of the crack cocaine epidemic, saying they did nothing more than warehouse people in state prisons.

The legislation made New Jersey’s drug court program eligible to more offenders, like those who have committed second-degree burglary or robbery. The law also made drug court mandatory, for some offenders. A judge can now impose it as a sentence. Until now, it was a voluntary program; defendants had to apply to get in.

But this shift in sentiment on how to treat drug crime shows politicians, particularly Republicans, no longer feel they have to be tough to be effective, said Todd R. Clear, interim chancellor and dean, School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in Newark.

“For years, politicians had it burned into their souls that you can’t be soft on crime,” Clear said. “I remember one time driving through Southern Georgia in the 1990s, and people running for court clerk were saying they believed in the death penalty. It was just crazy.”

Times have indeed changed. Not just a Republican but a former prosecutor, Christie actually championed the state’s new drug court program in a gubernatorial debate earlier this month, saying treatment is the more suitable response to addiction because “no life is disposable.”

Treatment may also be the more effective response, drug court proponents say. While 54 percent of drug offenders released from prison are rearrested for new crimes, that figure is just 16 percent for those who have graduated from the program, according to the state’s drug court website.

Under the state’s program, which is only open to nonviolent offenders, participants submit to regular drug tests and complete court-prescribed treatments. Those who fail a drug test or commit a new crime face sanctions and possibly jail time. In the past, addicts who weren’t ready to quit preferred to go to prison rather than be subjected to rigorous treatment. With the program being mandatory in some cases, offenders will no longer have that choice.

As of July, judges in three areas -- Hudson, Ocean, and Somerset/Hunterdon/Warren -- began sentencing certain offenders to drug court on a mandatory basis. Under the law signed last year, each year, judges in an additional three will be able to mandate drug court sentences, until all of the state is participating.

Bennett Barlyn, a former county prosecutor who at one time worked in drug court, said the system can be a very effective tool in the hands of someone who wants to change his or her behavior. In fact, it’s the only state-subsidized drug rehab program in New Jersey.

“The only way you can get the state to pay for drug treatment is to commit a crime and thereafter be sentenced to drug court,” he said.

Barnett Hoffman, a former presiding judge in the criminal division in Middlesex County, actually started his own treatment program there so that county prisoners could receive state-subsidized treatment in what would otherwise be dead time. There are now similar programs in Bergen, Atlantic, and Camden counties.

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