TESTIMONY OF RICHARD J. WILLIAMS
ADMINISTRATIVE DIRECTOR OF THE COURTS
SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE
March 22, 2004
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear and address the committee about the Judiciary's Drug Court Program. With me today is Superior Court Judge Thomas Brown of Camden County. Judge Brown is one of the longest serving drug court judges in the state. He presides over the longest running adult drug court in New Jersey in Camden County. He is here because of his commitment to this program and to answer any specific questions you may have about how and why drug courts work.
First, I would like to thank Senators Shirley Turner and Martha Bark for sponsoring and Senators Kenny, Connors and Gormley for co-sponsoring legislation to provide the Judiciary with a supplemental appropriation of $1.79 million to provide funding for expansion of the drug court program statewide in Fiscal Year 2004. I would also like to thank the Legislature generally for its support for this program in building it to where it stands today. Today we are receiving $18,539,000 for operation of the drug court program. The majority of this funding goes to drug treatment.
Recently, the State of New Jersey has been criticized as the state with the highest proportion of offenders incarcerated for drug offenses. Thirty-six percent of our total prison population is incarcerated for some type of drug offense, which compares unfavorably to a national average of 20 percent. One study estimates that it costs New Jersey $266 million annually to keep drug offenders in prison. That is more than one-third of the states spend on their entire corrections system. Imprisonment is costly to our society and often fails to address the underlying causes of addiction. The use of prison to punish drug offenders allows the cycle of drug addiction, drug distribution and drug-related crime to continue. When these offenders are released from our prisons, they return to their communities to pick up where they left off buying and selling drugs, committing property crime to support their habits, and influencing new generations of youth.
Drug courts, on the other hand, have been remarkably successful in breaking the cycle of addiction through substance abuse treatment, judicial monitoring, intensive probation supervision and rigorous drug testing in support of the recovery of individuals who were previously thought to be "hopeless."
Additionally, drug courts address the serious problem of the overrepresentation of minorities in our prison system. Today 90 percent of all prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses are minorities. Drug courts directly address one of the prime causes of racial disparity in our prison population. Today, 69 percent of current drug court participants are minorities. We could do even better were it not for the impact of mandatory sentencing requirements for school zone violations. The disproportional impact of the State's school zone law on minority populations is apparent. Citizens in urban centers face not only more severe penalties, because nearly every street corner in urban centers is within a school zone, but they are also unduly impacted by the restrictive criteria for entering drug court under the law. Since April 1, 2002, about 500 offenders were rejected from drug court due to the restrictions of the school zone sentencing statute.
Despite this limitation, drug courts have achieved remarkable results. I would like to share with you just a few of those results.
That is some of the good news about drug courts. It is hard to overstate the impact of this program, not just on the participants, but on the criminal justice system as well. The program has promoted a collaborative atmosphere where agencies and divisions learn to work much more effectively together toward the common goal of reducing drug related crime in our communities. In fact, drug court judges and other team members are reaching out into their communities to educate citizens and civic groups about drug courts and to garner support for program participants. It is our goal to assist recovering drug offenders to integrate themselves into their communities as sober, employed and productive citizens. Drug courts not only enhance the quality of life for individuals, but they make a direct impact on that person's family and their community.
So I come here today with both a sense of achievement and a significant concern about drug courts in New Jersey. One of the fundamental principles of the Judiciary is to provide Constitutionally guaranteed equal protection of law to all citizens in this state regardless of the county in which they reside. 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 this is our current practice in New Jersey. We have not opened a new drug court in two years.
The simple fact is that drug courts have been proven to save lives by stopping the endless cycle of addiction and crime; however, eight New Jersey counties in the remaining five vicinages are not able to benefit from that fact. Citizens and communities in Atlantic, Cape May, Burlington, Hudson, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset and Warren Counties are being shortchanged. Clearly, that is the bad news about drug courts in New Jersey.
We are grateful to Governor McGreevey for proposing an additional $2.2 million in the Fiscal Year 2005 budget to implement drug courts in the counties still without a drug court. However, the concern is that the funds are not sufficient to open drug courts in all eight counties until May of next year, more than 12 months from now. Until then, thousands of drug offenders will be cycled into prison and back out into the community. We appreciate every consideration by the Legislature to provide funding that will enable us to open these drug courts sooner.
Drug courts can be up and running in the final eight counties within 30 days of obtaining necessary funding. There are judges, prosecutors, public defenders, treatment providers and court staff in the eight counties ready to go. They are anxiously awaiting funding so that their counties can experience the same benefits of drug courts that have been seen in their sister counties.
But think about this: for every $800,000 in additional funding made available we can open drug courts in these final eight counties one month earlier. Again, that means fewer offenders cycling through the prison system and safer communities faster. I ask that you consider the very positive impact that drug courts have had in New Jersey and the need to expand those benefits statewide to all 21 counties. If additional funds can be identified and appropriated, they would be gratefully received and money well spent. This money is an investment in the drug court program's ability to make a lasting impact on the quality of life for addicted offenders and their families. And safer communities are the result. Therefore, I urge you to favorably consider this bill, and I urge that we continue to work in the next budget to make statewide drug courts a reality for this calendar year.