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Convicted? You may be eligible for drug court if legislation passes.

A bill expanding New Jersey's drug court program was recently approved by the state Senate. This legislation, if approved by the Assembly, would expand eligibility for the substance abuse treatment program. In addition, it would test a plan to automatically enroll all eligible offenders in drug treatment. The test will be run in two counties yet to be determined - one in northern New Jersey and the other in the southern part of the state.

The idea behind drug courts is that individuals who commit crimes because of their drug addiction need treatment rather than punishment.  Consequently, many individuals enrolled in drug court programs across the country have been convicted of theft offenses, rather than drug offenses, because they were seeking the means to support their drug habits.

"Giving criminal offenders an opportunity at a second chance at a crime-free life is a moral and responsible thing to do," said one of the bill's sponsors, Raymond J. Lesniak, D-Union. "This bill is about spending our corrections budget smarter, and putting the focus on addiction recovery, rather than blind incarceration, for offenders who are motivated by substance abuse."

Proposed changes to drug court program

The proposed legislation expands number of offenders eligible for substance addiction treatment through the state's current drug court programs. Courts would also have more flexibility and be able to send offenders to drug court even if they did not meet qualifications that are currently mandatory. Additionally, offenders currently in jail or prison, or awaiting sentencing, would be able to request re-evaluation of their eligibility for drug court under the new criteria.

Two of the eligibility criteria that would become more discretionary are:

  • The offender cannot have more than one prior conviction for a first or second-degree crime
  • The offense must have been committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol or to support a drug habit

Under the proposed legislation, courts will have the ability to waive these requirements and place offenders who do not meet the previous criteria into treatment.

Drug court reduces likelihood of reoffending, says bill's sponsor

Lesniak was robbed in 2009 at his Elizabeth home. He noted that one of the robbers was able to get into drug court, reducing the likelihood of that he would reoffend. The second had a prior second-degree conviction, making him ineligible for drug court and far more likely to commit additional crimes upon release.

Source: NJToday, "Senate Approves Bill To Expand NJ Drug Court Program," June 3, 2012.

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