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Drug Courts

New Jersey’s drug court programs have existed for decades to provide help for people who struggle with addiction to alcohol or drugs and face criminal charges related to these issues.

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Rather than sending defendants to jail on strict criminal charges, a drug court works to find resolutions to drug-related crimes through rehabilitation and community programs.

Sometimes, incarceration may be part of that solution. In other cases, release to a specific substance abuse program may work better.

The History of Drug Courts in New Jersey

The model of drug courts currently used in New Jersey was developed by a group of dedicated judges, public defenders and prosecutors, drug court specialists, probation officers, and substance abuse treatment specialists.

The first courts in the state started in 1996, when the Camden and Essex drug courts began accepting nonviolent offenders. Local projects paved the way for statewide drug court programs by 1999, when further counties picked up the model for nonviolent offenders involved in drug-related criminal activity.

By May 2000, drug courts were considered the “best practice” for substance abuse charges for nonviolent offenders. By September 2001, the governor signed a law creating a statewide drug court system. This program started in 2002 with the opening of more county drug courts in New Jersey.

When participants adhere to New Jersey’s drug court program stipulations, there is great success helping potential repeat drug offenders overcome addiction to substances, find jobs and stable housing, and return to their communities. The courts were expanded further across New Jersey with a new law in 2012.

Simply incarcerating people who struggle with addiction does not help them safely detox or focus on behavioral change. Instead, they are at greater risk for relapsing back into substance abuse when they are released from prison, which means they are at risk for being put back in jail for similar crimes.

How Do Drug Courts Work in New Jersey?

Drug court programs in New Jersey are rigorous, requiring intensive supervision, including frequent but random drug tests and appearances for specific court dates. Attendance at recovery services and treatment programs is also required, so defendants may find that they need to provide evidence that they have attended detox, support group meetings, or other parts of addiction treatment plans.

In the state of New Jersey, drug court programs are managed through the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC), but legislation involving these programs requires allocation through the Department of Human Services (DHS), Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS).

The primary duties of DMHAS include to:

  • Recognize service gaps in the continuum of care for addiction and mental health treatment.
  • Educate provider networks about drug court requirements in New Jersey.
  • Assess the need and plan for residential or outpatient capacity growth due to changes in laws and sentencing in drug courts.
  • Manage financial aspects of drug court programs.
  • Work closely with AOC to ensure that treatment needs for drug courts are met.
  • Act as a bridge between AOC and the greater drug treatment community in New Jersey.

Drug courts in NJ are characterized by:

  • Collaboration between prosecutors, public defenders, the court system, social service agencies (primarily DMHAS), community-based nonprofit programs, treatment providers, and the defendant.
  • A standardized assessment process to locate eligible nonviolent offenders.
  • Staff members, trained in substance abuse and recovery issues, who provide a non-adversarial atmosphere.
  • A system of progressive, graduated sanctions and incentives that help defendants manage recovery goals.
  • A system of goals and steps that keeps offenders accountable for noncompliant behavior with changes in carceral punishment.
  • Ongoing program evaluation to determine how the program should continue treatment.
  • Continuous training and education on the state and national level for drug court professionals.

Drug Courts Work Well for Many Participants

Since 2002, more than 24,000 nonviolent offenders have moved through the drug court system in New Jersey, either voluntarily or mandatorily. Overall, the programs appear to be successful at moving many defendants onto a drug-free path that helps them avoid jail time.

According to 2019 statistics, only 2.5 percent of drug court graduates end up incarcerated for a new crime within three years of completing drug court. Among those who serve state prison sentences without drug court options, recidivism is much higher.

About 89 percent of drug court graduates are employed at the time of graduation from the program; about two-thirds of participants are employed full time. Approximately 95 percent of monthly drug tests during the treatment program are negative, suggesting that program participants work hard and take the drug court treatment program seriously.

Over 5,800 participants have successfully graduated from this program, which handles people for five years or less. Those who are discharged from the program due to struggles with participation do not necessarily end up in jail, but they may be transferred to different treatment programs due to serious medical or psychological struggles and then put on a term of probation.

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