New Jersey Drug Court Expansion An Early Success
Earlier this year, Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, directed federal prosecutors to take steps to prevent some non-violent drug offenders from spending significant time behind bars. The announcement was meant to limit the application of harsh mandatory prison sentences for some federal drug crimes and was applauded by many experts. Indeed, some saw Holder’s decision as a tacit admission that the “War on Drugs,” waged for decades throughout the U.S. and at astronomical expense, had failed.
Although the decision to change the way in which prosecutors charge non-violent, first-time offenders marked a significant change in federal policy, some states, including New Jersey, had already taken steps to explore alternative options in sentencing and helping those charged with drug crimes.
In 2012, Governor Chris Christie signed legislation expanding New Jersey’s drug court program. The new law made it possible for more offenders, including those charged with burglary or robbery, to take advantage of the drug court program. In addition, the law made participating mandatory for some offenders. Previously, participation in drug court had been voluntary.
According to Governor Christie, the expansion of New Jersey’s drug court program was an important step in the right direction. During the 1980s, the nationwide crack epidemic caused lawmakers to take a hard line with respect to drug sentencing, which led to harsh, often times unjust mandatory minimum prison sentences for even first-time offenders.
New Jersey’s drug court program is only open to non-violent offenders. As part of the program, individuals agree to submit to regular mandatory drug testing and to take part in certain treatment programs required by the court. If a participant fails a drug test or commits another crime, he may face time in jail. In past years, some addicts preferred to forego treatment in favor of time in prison. Under the new law, however, this is no longer an option in some cases: for many addicts, court-approved treatment is the only choice.
Supporters of the drug court program point out that previous efforts designed to put people behind bars for years simply did not work. Once offenders were released, many still had addiction issues and were likely to re-offend. They also point out one important aspect of the drug court model: it is significantly less expensive to require someone to get treatment than it is to lock him up in a cell for years at a time.
If you have been charged with a drug crime, speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney, who can explain your rights.