A proposal to allow counties to create new central municipal drug courts to hear minor drug cases, in an effort to relieve municipal courts and emphasize treatment over jail time, is finally inching though the state Legislature.

The idea dates back a decade – but still needs more work, an official from the state judiciary cautioned as the Assembly Law & Public Safety gave the bill, A5234, an initial approval.

“The judiciary does support ensuring that all the criminal defendants who come before us get the treatment services that they need. However, any time that we’re setting up a new court, there are concerns related to jurisdiction, court administration and funding,” said Alyson Jones, legislative liaison for the Administrative Office of the Courts. “This bill has all three of those concerns.”

For instance, Jones said, the proposed central municipal drug courts would be allowed to hear fourth-degree crimes as well as disorderly persons and petty disorderly persons cases.

“With any fourth-degree crime, the right to a jury trial would attach. But municipal courts do not do jury trials,” Jones said. “So dealing with how that jurisdictional piece work work out would be crucial.”

Jones said the proposal wouldn’t create a drug court akin to what the state has had for more than 20  years as a probationary program within the Superior Court.

“It’s a very specific thing. It includes a judge. It includes court staff. It includes treatment providers, substance abuse evaluators, a prosecutor, a public defender,” Jones said. “Those things aren’t laid out in the bill that we have before us, so we want to be careful about dividing all that up, making sure it’s very and making sure that what we’re creating will have the supports to be successful.”

Drug courts aren’t inexpensive, Jones said.

“Our existing drug court is well-established, well-known and for fiscal year ’20, we have $38.8 million allocated for the judiciary to run that,” she said. “So this is a program that does require a significant amount of funding to go with it.”

Jones also said lawmakers have to consider whether waiving juveniles into central municipal courts would provide sufficient access to wraparound services available in Family Court. Additionally, she said, Family Court proceedings are confidential while municipal court records are not.

“So ensuring that they’re going to get that same therapeutic treatment that is going to assist the entire family and that they’re not going to be followed by a record that they wouldn’t otherwise have had the stayed in Family Court would be also very important to think about,” Jones said.

Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, D-Middlesex, said she is concerned about how the counties or municipalities would pay for the “very involved courts” with multiple services, as well as whether the attorneys and judges would have the needed expertise.

“The judges may be not experienced in things like the nuances of a drug court,” Pinkin said.

Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro, D-Gloucester, allowed a vote to advance the proposal from his committee but said “certainly this bill will look a little bit different as it makes its way through the process.”

“I truly believe and trust that some of these kinks will be addressed as we work this through our legislative process,” Taliaferro said.

Jones said the judiciary has been working with the bill sponsors about its concerns.

“Affording counties the choice to establish municipal drug courts that specifically deal with minor drug-related offenses creates room for a more expeditious and fair judicial process,” said Assemblyman Tom Giblin, D-Essex. “Right now, many of our local courts are overwhelmed by the number of cases on their docket and creating a central court will help lift the burden.”

The bill makes community service and drug treatment programs options for sentencing, rather than jail time. Failure to comply with the court ordered community service or drug treatment program would be reported to the court and could potentially result in the imposition of a new sentence.

Judicial appointments to the central municipal drug court would be made by nomination from the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. Either the county executive or governing body of the county would be responsible to submit a shortlist of names for consideration.

The county or municipality would employ an attorney as a prosecutor, under the supervision of the attorney general or county prosecutor, who would represent the government on any matter in the central municipal drug court. It could also hire someone to serve as a public defender.

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