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Assembly Panel Clears Watson Coleman Bill to Create Pilot Program for Mandatory Sentencing to Drug Court Program

(TRENTON) – An Assembly committee on Monday advanced legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer) that would create a pilot program to test the effectiveness of mandatory sentencing to drug court for certain nonviolent offenders.

“Imprisonment is a costly solution, and too often with nonviolent drug offenders, it is not a solution at all. Many of these individuals are leaving prison worse off than they entered it,” said Watson Coleman. “The voluntary drug court program in New Jersey has had great success. This pilot program would help determine whether this success would extend to mandatory participation.”

As a result of the drug court program’s multifaceted approach to crime and addiction, drug court participants have a far lower recidivism rate than offenders who are incarcerated in state prisons.

The Department of Corrections tracked drug offenders released from prison for three years after their release. It found that 54 percent of drug offenders were arrested for an indictable offense and 43 percent were reconvicted, while 16 percent of drug offenders who graduated from a drug court program were arrested and 8 percent were reconvicted three years after graduating from the program.

“This measure is intended to build upon the success of the drug court program by mandating participation in the program for certain individuals,” said Watson Coleman. “Drug court participants have a far lower recidivism rate than offenders who are incarcerated in state prisons. This is largely due to the fact that drug court partnerships develop comprehensive and tightly structured regimens of treatment and recovery services. But before we make the jump, we must determine how effective the program will be for individuals who do not voluntarily participate, how best to integrate the willing and assigned participants, and whether there is sufficient capacity to treat additional participants.”

The governor has proposed expanding the drug court program statewide. The governor’s proposed budget appropriates just $2.5 million to drug courts, but according to the Administrative Office of the Courts, a statewide drug court program would cost nearly $20 million to administer.

The bill (A-2883) would not only establish the pilot program to assess the efficiency of mandatory sentencing of qualified offenders to drug court programs, but the feasibility of expanding the program statewide as well. The Administrative Office of the Courts would administer and evaluate the pilot program. The pilot program would be established in two vicinages selected by the Office.

The bill would require certain defendants in the pilot program areas undergo a professional diagnostic assessment to determine whether, and to what extent, the defendant is drug dependent and would benefit from treatment. This assessment would be ordered for any defendant who: (1) is reasonably suspected to be drug dependent; (2) is ineligible for probation due to a conviction for a crime that is subject to a presumption of incarceration or a mandatory minimum period of parole ineligibility; and (3) meets the legal criteria for admission to the “drug court” program.

If, based on the results of the professional diagnostic assessment, the court determines the defendant is drug dependent and otherwise eligible to be sentenced to the drug court program, the court would be required to sentence the defendant to the drug court program unless it finds it is required to impose a sentence of imprisonment pursuant to Chapters 43 and 44 of the Criminal Code.

This bill would require that, within one year following the effective date and for five years thereafter, the Administrative Director of the Courts submit an evaluation of the pilot program to the governor and the Legislature. The evaluation would include the rates of completion and revocation for defendants admitted to the drug court program, recidivism rates for graduates from the drug court program in the pilot program areas, the costs associated with implementing mandatory sentencing to the drug court program, and any other information that may indicate its effectiveness.

The bill was released by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.