A series of changes in state law led to a sharp increase in the second half of last year in the number of offenders voluntarily signing up for drug court programs across New Jersey, including in counties where judges may impose mandatory sentences, state officials said.
But the growing enrollment also means state officials must expand the treatment services available to drug court participants.
"Our challenge is to maintain our quality with these increased numbers," Carol Venditto, the state's drug court manager, told The Star-Ledger of Newark.
Driven by the legislative changes as well as the greater public attention given to drug court programs, there were 1,043 voluntary admissions across the state between July 1 and Dec. 31, a roughly 25 percent increase over the same period in 2012, Venditto said.
To accommodate the increased demand, the state has been reaching out to in-patient treatment providers about expanding their operations and they also are looking at new providers, Venditto said. With a limited capacity among providers, some defendants now may have to remain in a county jail before going to a treatment facility, Venditto said.
"Jail's not a great place for someone who needs to be in treatment," she said.
The state Judiciary, which runs the drug court programs, has been seeking additional funding to cover treatment services, drug testing and the hiring of more court personnel, including probation officers, Venditto said.
"We are growing at a faster pace, so our requests for funding will obviously grow in the same manner," she said.
The "flood of admissions," Venditto said, can be attributed in part to legislation enacted in 2012 that allowed for greater participation in drug court programs, which are available to certain offenders in every county as an alternative to going to prison.
The programs include regular court appearances, drug treatment, frequent and random drug testing, and intensive supervision by probation officers.
The legislation expanded the eligibility for drug court participants and eliminated a certain provision that had allowed prosecutors to block offenders from joining the programs. Those changes took effect in January 2013.
In addition, the bill enabled the statewide implementation of mandatory sentences to drug court programs. While offenders have been able to volunteer for the programs, that change meant judges would be able to sentence them to drug court, whether they're willing to enroll or not.
Starting July 1, mandatory sentences were incorporated in the vicinages of Hudson, Ocean and Somerset/Hunterdon/Warren. Three more vicinages are expected to add mandatory sentences annually until the statewide change is fully implemented.
The next set of vicinages to incorporate mandatory sentences on July 1 of this year will be Atlantic/Cape May, Passaic and Mercer, Venditto said.
But in those first three vicinages, the prospect of a mandatory sentence has encouraged some offenders to sign up voluntarily, Venditto said.
Between July 1 and Dec. 31, five people received mandatory sentences between the three vicinages, Venditto said. At the same time, the three vicinages received 267 voluntary admissions, compared with 129 during the second half of 2012, Venditto said.
In the three vicinages, attorneys with the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender have been advising their clients to consider signing up for drug court programs voluntarily, said Larry Bembry, the office's drug court director.
Defendants may receive more favorable treatment from the judge if they join the programs voluntarily, Bembry said. Also, defendants who volunteer for drug court are more motivated to succeed in the programs, Bembry said.
"Hopefully, when that person makes the decision, they're making the decision because they have decided that they need assistance, they need help, in terms of dealing with their substance abuse issue," Bembry said.
The drug court programs also mean substantial savings to the criminal justice system, given the difference between incarceration and drug treatment expenses, according to Bruce Stout, an associate professor of criminology at the College of New Jersey.
A 2010 state report, for instance, estimated that the annual institutional cost per inmate in New Jersey is about $38,900, while the average annual cost for an active drug court participant is about $11,379.
"You not only save a lot of money, but you also save the lives of addicts. who might otherwise die and then the third benefit is you reduce crime," Stout said. "So you cut costs, you save lives... and you reduce crime. What could be better?"
Information from: The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, http://www.nj.com