The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week that judges can allow offenders to enter drug court even if they have more than one previous conviction for a nonviolent offense. An earlier appeals court ruling had limited drug court eligibility only to those eligible for "special probation," which is limited to drug- or alcohol-using defendants with no more than one prior conviction.
Drug courts are designed to divert drug offenders or offenders with drug issues into a closely monitored drug treatment program instead of jail or prison.
While the state argued that only defendants eligible for "special probation" qualify for diversion, the state Supreme Court held that there is more than one route to drug court. Judges have the discretion to admit nonviolent offenders who would likely receive a probationary sentence anyway, the court held.
"It is inconceivable that the legislature granted a trial court power to impose a probationary sentence, but not the power to attach the one condition necessary to address the offender's desperate needs -- a drug rehabilitation program," Albin wrote in the unanimous opinion.
"Drug courts have achieved notable success," Albin continued. When someone with a drug problem is likely to get probation, Justice Barry Albin wrote, "it is preferable that defendant be monitored within a specialized court with personnel who have the particularized skills and training to maximize the prospect of the offender's rehabilitation."