Municipal courts all over New Jersey are increasingly getting swamped with large numbers of minor drug possession cases, and one assemblyman now sponsors legislation that would allow counties to establish their own, centralized drug courts.

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"The courts are overburdened right now, depending on where you are in the state," said Assemblyman Joe Lagana (D-Paramus). "Having the uniformity, one or two judges in the county hearing all these cases, will definitely help the other courts as far as unclogging their burdens. (The legislation) creates and provides uniformity whereby people can be monitored -- instead of being sent to jail, they can be given community service, sent to rehab programs. They could be monitored, to a degree."

Lagana believes it's critically important to shift our focus and help people overcome drug addiction, instead of simply locking them up in jail or letting them go without treatment.

"What typically happens is a person on a first offense is given a conditional discharge, which essentially means, don't do anything wrong for six months and we're going to reduce your charges," he said. "So we're not really tracking what's happening to people. Establishing county drug courts would have a very positive, significant impact on people overcoming their addictions and getting their lives back on track."

The measure would allow counties to establish, by ordinance, a central municipal drug court that would be authorized to hear cases involving crimes of the fourth degree, disorderly persons offenses, or petty disorderly persons offenses related to controlled dangerous substances.

The bill also establishes a plan for appointing judges to the drug court. The judge of the central municipal drug court would be nominated and appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the state Senate. In counties with a county executive, that person would submit the names of judicial candidates for the central drug court to the governor.

Lagana's bill has been referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.