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Despite a proposed hike of more than $2 million in funding, the state judiciary will not be able to expand drug courts into the five vicinages that do not have them, court officials said last week after the governor’s budget address. Gov. James McGreevey, in his fiscal 2005 budget announced last Tuesday, asked the Legislature to increase the funding for the drug court program from $19 million to $21.2 million. The judiciary had asked that at least $10 million be added to expand the program statewide. The total budget recommendation for the judiciary increases from $523,964,000 to $526,073,000, which is 2 percent of the total $26.2 billion in proposed spending. Drug courts are specialized courts that deal with primarily first-time offenders charged with nonviolent drug crimes and are designed to offer treatment rather than prison sentences. Participants are required to submit to intensive supervision, frequent drug tests and court appearances. Drug courts presently are in place in all vicinages but five — Atlantic-Cape May, Burlington, Hudson, Middlesex and Hunterdon-Somerset-Warren. The administration, in its budget summary, indicated that the proposed $2 million increase would allow the judiciary to expand the drug court program. But Winnie Comfort, communications director for the Administrative Office of the Courts, says that without the additional funds, statewide expansion will likely be delayed for at least another year. “We are certainly pleased that the governor acknowledged the need to expand the program,” she says. “However, the amount proposed in the budget will not allow for a full expansion.” Comfort says the judiciary plans to lobby the Assembly Budget Committee and the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for funding sufficient to expand the drug court program statewide. Comfort says that even with the added funding proposed, it is unlikely that the drug court program will be expanded to even one additional vicinage. Rather, she says, the funds will likely have to be used to cover increasing expenses in the vicinages that have the program. Last May, Administrative Director of the Courts Richard Williams told the Senate committee that not providing funds to expand the program statewide raises questions of fairness. “We are concerned about the fairness of making intensive drug treatment available to defendants in 10 vicinages while sending similarly situated defendants in the other five vicinages to prison,” Williams told the committee. Comfort says there remains “significant concern” that first-time drug offenders in vicinages that do not have the program are not able to take advantage of the services that are available in the 10 vicinages that do have the program. “We are hopeful that we will be able to continue the discussions” with the budget committees, she says. Comfort did not deny the possibility that AOC officials may consider dropping the drug court altogether if funds are not made available to expand to each vicinage. “There is a lot of room for discussion,” she says.

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