New Jersey has developed the drug court program it started 17 years ago into one of its most powerful tools in the fight against addiction and related crime. A unanimous state Supreme Court ruling last month will strengthen the program further by making it easier for graduates to attain a new law-abiding life free of drugs.
Drug court since 2002 has worked to rehabilitate more than 24,000 nonviolent criminals who volunteered for or were ordered into it in lieu of prison. For up to five years, they undergo frequent drug testing, make regular court appearances, and are rigorously supervised by judges, treatment providers, probation officers, prosecutors and public defenders.
More than 5,400 have completed the tough program and another 6,400 are currently participating. Quite a few can’t cut it and receive a prison term after all, or are transferred to probation terms for medical or psychological issues.
Those who succeed often dramatically turn around their lives. All graduates were free of drugs for at least a year and 90 percent were employed upon graduation.
According to Administrative Office of the Courts data released in conjunction with the Supreme Court ruling, only 2.5 percent of drug-court graduates have been imprisoned for a new indictable crime within three years. And the office told NJ 101.5 that a drug court defendant costs the state about half — $15,000 a year — of what it takes to keep a criminal in prison.
The program got a major boost in 2012 when then-Gov. Chris Christie made it mandatory for certain nonviolent offenders. It has always excluded those convicted of serious crimes such as murder, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping and first- and second-degree drug dealing.
Some of the benefits of the program remained elusive, however, because those who stayed free of drugs and crime often found it difficult to be hired with a criminal record. Expungement was possible for some lesser offenses but was a daunting legal process to complete. A 2016 law addressed that by expanding the possibilities for expungement and easing the requirements for it, but judicial interpretation still limited the opportunity for many drug-court graduates.
The Supreme Court in January reversed an appellate court decision to hold that the 2016 law gave graduates the opportunity to erase even significant criminal histories. The three defendants in the case it considered had records that ranged as high as 13 arrests and convictions.
The opinion by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said the law favors expungement for graduates; presumes that expunging their third- and fourth-degree drug sale offenses is in the public interest; requires expungement cases to be heard by drug court judges who are familiar with the program; and frees applicants from providing documentation on past convictions unless the judge thinks it necessary.
The cost and challenge of assembling such documentation alone would be enough to prevent some drug-court graduates from clearing their records.
An expunged record also adds to the motivation to abide by the law, since a subsequent conviction for any crime may result in the entire criminal record being restored without possibility of future expungement.
The court’s ruling and the development of drug court appropriately ensure that nonviolent offenders who meet the program’s strict requirements get an actual second chance and not just one in theory.
As with other strategies for combating drug crime and addiction, the process doesn’t work for everyone. But it has turned a significant number of repeat offenders from a life of crime and could help many more.