More than 24,000 non-violent criminals since 2002, either voluntarily or mandatorily, have entered New Jersey's drug court program instead of being shipped off to jail.

New figures from the state suggest the program, which was expanded in 2012 and pushes rehabilitation over incarceration, has been successful in putting many defendants on a path toward a drug- and prison-free life.

According to January 2019 data from the Administrative Office of the Courts, just 2.5 percent of drug court graduates end up behind bars for a new crime within three years. The recidivism rate is much higher among those who serve a state prison sentence.

A little more than 18 percent of program graduates are arrested for new indictable crimes within three years, the data show — also a significantly lower percentage compared to those who've been released from prison.

According to the data, 89 percent of participants are employed at the time of graduation. About two-thirds of current active participants are employed full time.

"So few of our clients are employed when they come in," Donna Plaza, chief of the adult drug court program, told New Jersey 101.5.

While involved in the program, which could involve detox, outpatient treatment or residential treatment, participants are also assisted with gaining employment, education or both.

Drug testing is conducted regularly on participants; only defendants who have a moderate to severe substance use disorder are eligible for the program.

"We do almost 20,000 tests a month, and 95 percent of them are negative," Plaza said.

Since 2002, 201 parents regained custody of their minor children due to their participation in drug court. Participants gave birth to 652 drug-free babies.

More than 5,800 participants have successfully graduated from the program, which handles individuals for no longer than five years. Another 849 participants are in the final phase of the program, and another 6,471 are currently active. Since April 1, 2002, the program's recorded 24,544 participants.

Not all individuals who fail to graduate are sent to prison to actually serve a sentence for their crime. Some defendants, Plaza said, need to be discharged for significant medical or psychological issues, and are transferred to a term of probation.

In 2012, then-Gov. Chris Christie expanded the drug court program to make it mandatory for certain offenders.

Drug court costs about $15,000 per year for a defendant, Plaza said — approximately half of what it costs to keep an individual behind bars.

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