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The judiciary will be able to open drug courts by February in the vicinages that still don’t have them, if a supplemental appropriations bill that a committee recommended for passage last Monday becomes law. The measure, S-1261, calls for $1.79 million to be spent exclusively on drug courts for those remaining vicinages, on top of the $2.2 million increase in drug-court funding earmarked in Gov. James McGreevey’s proposed fiscal 2005 budget. “[T]he concern is that these funds [in the proposed budget] are not sufficient to open drug courts in all eight [remaining] counties until May of next year, 12 more months,” Administrative Director of the Courts Richard Williams told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing last Monday. “Until then, thousands of drug offenders will be cycled into prison and back out into the community.” While the additional $1.79 million in the supplemental appropriations bill would move up the date to February, Williams said doubling the amount would mean the remaining counties could get drug courts by the end of the year. After hearing Williams testify, the committee, with no debate, urged passage of the bill as written, drawing the line at $1.79 million. The bill, sponsored by senators Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, and William Gormley, R-Atlantic, also must be considered by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee before it reaches a floor vote. From their start as pilot programs in 1996 in Camden and Essex counties, drug courts have been established in all counties except Atlantic, Cape May, Burlington, Hudson, Middlesex, Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren. (See related chart, Adult Arrests for Drug Offenses in Counties without a Drug Court in 2002) Cheaper Than Prison Drug courts are specialized panels that handle cases of first-time drug offenders charged with nonviolent crimes. They offer intensive supervision and treatment rather than prison sentences. Participants must submit to frequent drug testing and court appearances before release from the program. Seventy-four percent of participants have successfully completed the requirements, compared with 70 percent in other programs nationwide, Williams reported to the committee. The current annual drug court appropriation is $18.4 million, and Williams made clear that is a pittance compared with how much New Jersey spends to lock people up. He presented data showing that the state ranks first nationally in money spent on incarcerating drug offenders: $266 million in 2001, the last year for which statistics were available. “That is more than what one-third of the states spend on their entire prison systems,” he said. To boot, mandatory sentencing laws for drug crimes have resulted in the New Jersey prison system having the highest percentage nationwide of inmates serving sentences for drug crimes: at 36 percent. The national average is 20 percent. But Williams’ sternest warning was of the danger in depriving defendants of drug court benefits based on geography alone. “One of the fundamental principles of the judiciary is to provide constitutionally guaranteed equal protection of law to all citizens of this state regardless of where they live,” Williams said. “We are very concerned about the fairness of making intensive drug treatment available to defendants in 13 counties while sending defendants in the other eight counties to prison. Yet, that is our current practice in New Jersey.” Minority Concerns Williams also spoke of the disparate impact of mandatory drug sentencing laws on minorities. “Today, 90 percent of all prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses in New Jersey are minorities,” he said. “Drug courts directly address one of the prime causes of racial disparity in our prison population.” In particular, Williams cited the mandatory sentences for drug violations in school zones. “The disproportional impact of the state’s school zone law on minority populations is apparent,” he said. “Because citizens in urban centers face not only more severe penalties, nearly every street corner in an urban center is within a school zone, but they are unduly impacted by the restrictive criteria for entering drug courts under the present law. Since April 1, 2002, about 500 offenders have been rejected from drug court due to the restrictions of the school-zone sentencing law.” Committee member Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, noted that the Legislature last year created a commission to study the effects of mandatory sentencing enacted in the 1990s that left trial judges with little or no leeway in addressing sentencing concerns. The intent of mandatory sentencing may have been good, Gill said, but the results may not have been anticipated.

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