October 24, 2009

Drug courts are needed; New Jersey shows why

by Yvonne Smith Segars, New Jersey Public Defender (As New Jersey Public Defender, Yvonne Smith Segars is the head of the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, an agency overseeing the Public Defender offices throughout state.)

Last Saturday's editorial, "Who needs drug courts?," asks a simple question. In reality, the answer is far more complex. Drug courts are certainly not for everybody, and they were never intended to solve all of the problems plaguing the criminal-justice system.

In New Jersey, with all major stakeholders having a voice at the table, the judiciary, law enforcement, the defense bar, and the addiction-services community worked diligently to create a successful model. Nonviolent offenders clinically addicted to alcohol and drugs are given an opportunity to receive effective treatment.

The New Jersey Office of the Public Defender represents more than 90 percent of drug court participants, undermining the claim that drug courts favor a more privileged socioeconomic group. Of the 8,004 people who, with the advice of lawyers at their sides, participated in New Jersey's drug-court program, 1,577 successfully graduated. While 61 percent of those entering the program complete it, the employment rate at the time of graduation is 90 percent and the percentage of negative drug tests is 96 percent. Within three years of graduating, only 3 percent return to prison for a new crime, compared with a 60 percent rate of recidivism for inmates who do not receive treatment.

Although there are serious concerns raised by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers that need attention, we should not be dismayed nor distracted. Funding should continue for easily accessible substance-abuse education, prevention, and treatment. As a community, we all benefit each and every time a person triumphs over his addiction to alcohol or other drugs and becomes a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. Who needs drug court? We all do.