National standards must be developed to deal with drug offenders, and the role of drug courts should be reduced in favor of more treatment programs, according to a two-year study released Tuesday by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Cynthia Orr, president of the association and a San Antonio-based attorney, said the association's study on problem-solving courts found there are 2,100 drug courts in virtually every state in the country, but no two are alike.

The association held hearings in several parts of the country and heard from lawyers, judges, social-service workers and drug court participants about the programs, said Rick Jones, a New York-based attorney and co-chairman of the committee that conducted the study. He added that "largely our findings were anecdotal."

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The group supports decriminalizing minor drug possession crimes and instead having drug users and their recovery fall under the auspices of the nation's public health system.

"This really is a public health issue," Jones said.

He cited Philadelphia's drug-court program as one that is working to help participants become informed before they commit to the program, but Jones said the study did not specifically look at drug courts in New Jersey.

However, Jones said, "New Jersey is in many respects a cutting-edge state when it comes to thinking about criminal justice issues."

Locally, the drug courts of Atlantic and Cape May counties recently held a graduation in which many participants credited the program with saving them from their drug-dependent lives.

Cape May County Senior Assistant Prosecutor Jim Herlihy said Tuesday that the local programs are seeing results, although they have not been in operation long enough to develop any long-term statistics.

Admittance into the drug- court program here requires the participants to be drug addicts who are legally eligible, meaning they have no history of criminal convictions for violent offenses or for drug dealing for profit.

While the defense attorney's association found many programs do not admit certain offenders who have supported their habits through other crimes, such as theft, Herlihy said those are the very people the program here wants.

"People who commit crimes to support their habit are our target population," Herlihy said.

Herlihy said participants receive counseling from their attorneys and all the evidence in their cases before they decide to join the drug court program. They also must sit in on a session to learn about the program, which provides intense supervision as a way to help drug users overcome their addictions.

"We really have a good program here," he said.

E-mail Trudi Gilfillian:

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