The drug court system gives certain New Jersey drug offenders the opportunity to avoid prison time while receiving treatment for substance addiction and abuse.  In this article, our Atlantic City drug defense attorneys will go over the history of the program, explain some recent changes to the rules for admission, and cover the criteria which can disqualify an offender from participating.

What Are Drug Courts, and How Do They Work?

It’s no secret that the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, surpassed only by the small island nation of Seychelles.  As of 2013, approximately 700 out of every 100,000 Americans were in jail or prison, adding up to more than 2 million adults behind bars nationwide.  In New Jersey, the Department of Corrections reports a statewide inmate population of nearly 21,500 people as of 2015, including about 3,400 juveniles in youth complexes.

prescription pills and drug charges

A large number of New Jersey’s inmates – about 17%, or 3,670 individuals – are currently incarcerated for narcotics crimes, such as simple possession, possession with intent to distribute (PWID), cultivation, manufacturing, and transportation.  While proponents of the “war on drugs” say that tough penalties discourage would-be offenders, critics would argue that incarcerating non-violent drug offenders merely serves to burden taxpayers, while doing little to curb recidivism or grant offenders real opportunities to break the cycle of addiction, poverty, and crime.

In an effort to address the shortcomings of the traditional, punitive approach, every state in the country has developed a system of specialized “drug courts.”  Since the establishment of New Jersey’s first drug court nearly 20 years ago in 1996, the program has expanded to vicinages throughout the state.  The Atlantic/Cape May vicinage (Vicinage 1) began accepting participants in September 2004.

Who Qualifies for Drug Court in Atlantic County, NJ?

For some offenders, participating in drug court is actually mandatory.  In July 2012, Governor Chris Christie signed P.L. 2012, c. 23 (S-881) into law in order to compel treatment for individuals “who are initially resistant to addressing their substance abuse problem through the voluntary Drug Court admission process.”  N.J.S.A. § 2C:35-14, which was altered and expanded the following year, provides the following:

“Any person who is ineligible for probation… may be sentenced to a term of special probation in accordance with this section…  As a condition of special probation, the court shall order the person to enter a residential [drug] treatment program at a facility licensed and approved by the Division of Addiction Services… or a program of nonresidential treatment by a licensed and approved treatment provider.”

In short, these legislative changes empower judges to require drug court participation by offenders who otherwise would not qualify – at least in certain counties, including Atlantic County (and neighboring Cape May County).  Counties in which mandatory programs have not yet been implemented will gradually be phased into the new system over the next several years.

While mandatory participation may now be enforced in certain areas of New Jersey, there are still some disqualifying criteria.  An offender will be considered ineligible for drug court if he or she was convicted of:

  • A first degree crime (equivalent to a first degree felony in other states).
  • A violent crime of the first or second degree (or an attempt to commit such crime), which includes all of the following offenses under N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2(d):
  • Certain offenses which carry mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Offenses involving distribution of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) to a minor on or school property or within a school zone.

Additionally, consent to participate must be obtained from the prosecutor, who might object to the offender’s placement on special probation.  However, a prosecutor’s objection may be overruled by the court if the objection is deemed to constitute a “gross and patent abuse of prosecutorial discretion” (i.e. an extreme and obvious misuse of the prosecutor’s power).

colored pills, tablets and drugs

Speaking generally, drug courts admit only non-violent offenders, without extensive criminal records, who do not pose a threat to the safety of the general public.  In contrast to other treatment programs which last for a matter of weeks or months, drug court treatment programs are long-term, with special probation lasting up to five years.

If you’ve been charged with drug crimes in Cape May County or Atlantic County, our experienced defense lawyers can help you explore your legal options while aggressively defending your Constitutional rights.  To set up a free, confidential consultation, call the Law Offices of John J. Zarych at (609) 616-4956 today.  Se habla español.