- Associated Press - Sunday, January 19, 2014

SOMERVILLE, N.J. (AP) - A series of changes in state law led to a sharp increase in the second half of last year in the number of offenders voluntarily signing up for drug court programs across New Jersey, including in counties where judges may impose mandatory sentences, state officials said.

But the growing enrollment also means state officials must expand the treatment services available to drug court participants.

“Our challenge is to maintain our quality with these increased numbers,” Carol Venditto, the state’s drug court manager, told The Star-Ledger of Newark (http://bit.ly/1bbvbeN).

Driven by the legislative changes as well as the greater public attention given to drug court programs, there were 1,043 voluntary admissions across the state between July 1 and Dec. 31, a roughly 25 percent increase over the same period in 2012, Venditto said.

To accommodate the increased demand, the state has been reaching out to in-patient treatment providers about expanding their operations and they also are looking at new providers, Venditto said. With a limited capacity among providers, some defendants now may have to remain in a county jail before going to a treatment facility, Venditto said.

“Jail’s not a great place for someone who needs to be in treatment,” she said.

The state Judiciary, which runs the drug court programs, has been seeking additional funding to cover treatment services, drug testing and the hiring of more court personnel, including probation officers, Venditto said.

“We are growing at a faster pace, so our requests for funding will obviously grow in the same manner,” she said.

The “flood of admissions,” Venditto said, can be attributed in part to legislation enacted in 2012 that allowed for greater participation in drug court programs, which are available to certain offenders in every county as an alternative to going to prison.

The programs include regular court appearances, drug treatment, frequent and random drug testing, and intensive supervision by probation officers.

The legislation expanded the eligibility for drug court participants and eliminated a certain provision that had allowed prosecutors to block offenders from joining the programs. Those changes took effect in January 2013.

In addition, the bill enabled the statewide implementation of mandatory sentences to drug court programs. While offenders have been able to volunteer for the programs, that change meant judges would be able to sentence them to drug court, whether they’re willing to enroll or not.

Starting July 1, mandatory sentences were incorporated in the vicinages of Hudson, Ocean and Somerset/Hunterdon/Warren. Three more vicinages are expected to add mandatory sentences annually until the statewide change is fully implemented.

The next set of vicinages to incorporate mandatory sentences on July 1 of this year will be Atlantic/Cape May, Passaic and Mercer, Venditto said.

But in those first three vicinages, the prospect of a mandatory sentence has encouraged some offenders to sign up voluntarily, Venditto said.

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