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Special drug courts that hold out rehabilitation instead of punishment for nonviolent substance abusers should be the rule, not the exception, in New Jersey, a local public policy group says in a report based on a three-year study. Leadership New Jersey, a New Brunswick-based program that brings together some of the state’s young business and academic leaders to study public policy issues, has issued a comprehensive report calling for drug courts –now operating on a pilot basis in seven counties — to be expanded to all 21. “My general impression is yes, there is forward movement in the judiciary to expand drug courts in New Jersey,” says Leah McGarry Morris, the drug court project leader for Leadership New Jersey. “But I have not seen anything in writing. I don’t know what form it’s going to take.” The group said the key obstacles to expansion are the lack of local funding, the backlog in judicial appointments, and a space shortage in inpatient and outpatient drug treatment programs. Drug court defendants get drug addiction treatment combined with intensive, long-term probation, as well as weekly reviews in court, drug screening and community service requirements. While one critical factor — cost — has been missing from the discussion on drug courts, that may change soon. The Leadership New Jersey report comes just as the Administrative Office of the Courts is about to make its own announcement about expansion of drug courts. Earlier this year, the AOC started its own study of possible implementation of a statewide drug court system and was expected this fall to issue a report of findings, including a section on cost and funding. The status of the AOC report could not be determined this month, with the department’s communications office referring questions about the report to various officials who either were on sick leave or did not return calls. However, Joseph Barraco, head of the AOC’s Criminal Practice Division, said last July that his agency viewed the drug court concept as attractive, but the courts would have a problem coping with the significant demand that it would place on judges’ time. The drug court concept got another boost last May, when the Conference of Criminal Presiding Judges issued a report favoring a 21-county expansion of the special courts. It’s unclear how the drug court concept might play with the members of the legislature. New Jersey Senate President Donald DiFrancesco’s spokeswoman, Rae Hutton, did not return calls this week. Assembly Speaker Jack Collins has yet to give any consideration to the drug court concept, says his spokesman, Chuck Leitgeb. Collins is open to considering the idea, but the cost would be a concern, says Leitgeb. “He said at this point it’s not something on his radar screen,” Collins’ aide says. “He would want a lot more details, but it’s something that hasn’t been a hot topic in this caucus.” Leadership New Jersey says keeping an inmate in prison costs up to $50,000 a year, while drug court costs $10,000 per participant. State and county elected officials will have to come up with funding because federal grants are not a reliable way to fund drug courts, says Morris. Now that the study is complete, present and past participants in Leadership New Jersey are talking up the group’s findings, says Morris. Among the 600 alumni from the program’s 15-year history are numerous elected officials and judges, including Superior Court Judges Thomas Smith from Burlington County, and F. Lee Forrester and Maryann Bielamowicz of Mercer County, says Thomas O’Neill, executive director of Partnership New Jersey, the group that sponsors the annual Leadership New Jersey program. Leadership New Jersey also sent its report to the heads of large New Jersey corporations, and one CEO phoned O’Neill two weeks ago to ask what he could do to bring drug courts to his county. O’Neill gave him the telephone numbers of the county’s assignment judge and prosecutor. “That’s exactly the kind of involvement we’re talking about,” O’Neill says. In the four years since the first drug court was established in Camden County, a patchwork of such programs has been started around New Jersey. Camden, Essex, Passaic and Union counties have adult drug courts that get state and federal funds. Mercer County’s program gets only state funds, and Camden and Hudson counties have juvenile drug court programs that receive only federal funds. In addition, two Monmouth County municipalities, Long Branch and Middletown, have state planning grants for development of municipal drug courts. The drug court study began when 50 people selected for their achievements in work and public service joined together to form the class of 1998 at Leadership New Jersey. The group met three days a month and studied various social problems including the environment, economic development, transportation and criminal justice. For the justice segment, group members rode along with police officers on patrol, visited prisons and sat in on drug courts. At the end of their year, the group members voted to pick drug courts as the subject of a continuing study. “We felt this kind of approach will have a trickle-down effect on the quality of life in New Jersey,” says Morris, first assistant deputy in the state Public Defender’s Office. “A lot of the crimes that are irksome to people are drug-related.” Lack of coordination between the state-funded program and the federally funded program has caused some confusion and duplication of effort, Leadership New Jersey found. The group also found that some county prosecutors and police are skeptical of the drug court concept, and that many legislators are convinced that the public will not tolerate any criminal justice remedies other than the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” variety. When the legislature considers action on drug courts, its members should listen to a variety of comments from interested parties, not just from police and the AOC, the group says. “Legislators must do a better job of soliciting and considering every relevant voice with regard to proposed legislation, regardless of how popular that voice might be,” the report says. The report also urged elected officials and other interested parties to observe a drug court in action. “In the final analysis, all of the facts, figures, observations and recommendations pale in persuasiveness compared to the power of direct observation of a drug court in session,” the report says. “Perhaps nowhere else in the justice system — or, indeed in most bureaucracies — can one observe participants struggling so hard or so bravely to return to living healthy, principled lives.” Funded with support from major corporations, Leadership New Jersey inducts 50 people from different fields each year to study social issues and advocate solutions. A summary of the group’s report on drug courts can be found at http://www.leadershipnj.org/drugcourts.html.

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