Gov. Chris Christie continued his push this week to change how the state treats drug-addicted offenders by signing into law a piece of bipartisan legislation to put in place a statewide, mandatory drug court program.
The governor has taken an aggressive stance on reevaluating drug policy and this legislation is the latest in a series of initiatives laid out by Christie in his January State of the State address.
The Governor's Council on Alcoholism formed in April the Drug Abuse Task Force on Heroin and Other Opiate Use Amongst New Jersey's Youth and Young Adults.
This month, they held a hearing at the Daytop School in Mendham.
Parents who were struggling to get their son help testified, as did a mother who was unable to get her child the help he needed in time to save his life shared her story. A N.J. prosecutor explained how technology has made drugs a problem within rural communities. But among the most powerful of the tales was one former addict speaking about the salvation found in a treatment facility while another expressed his frustrations over changes that made getting help harder.
The Daytop hearings will help inform future legislation and could be part of the phase in of the statewide, mandatory drug court program to be implemented over the course of five years.
The program expands New Jersey's drug court it to provide mandatory treatment for drug-addicted offenders throughout all 21 New Jersey counties. The existing program only accommodates 1,400 new participants per year.
“We will no longer simply warehouse individuals in prison who are not a threat to society while the underlying cause of their criminality goes unaddressed. And we won’t wait for them to come to the conclusion that they need treatment on their own,” Christie said.
Under this legislation, mandatory participation in a drug treatment program for eligible non-violent, drug-addicted offenders could be sentenced by a judge, regardless of whether they apply for admission to the drug court program.
According to their October 2010 Drug Court Report, the rate at which drug court graduates are re-arrested for a new indictable offense is 16 percent and the reconviction rate is 8 percent.
This is compared to re-arrest rates for drug offenders released from prison that stands at 54 percent with a re-conviction rate of 43 percent. According to that report, an average institutional cost per inmate is approximately $38,900, whereas the cost for an active drug court participant is roughly $11,379.
Under this legislation, mandatory participation in a drug treatment program for eligible nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders could be sentenced by a judge, regardless of whether they apply for admission to the drug court program.
In addition, the legislation provides for:
- Increased identification of eligible drug addicted nonviolent offenders. As part of this effort, information on drug addiction and treatment would be required to be given to those charged with second and third drug degree offenses.
- Court ordered clinical assessment to determine suitability for drug court. Pre-sentencing reports would be required to include information regarding drug addiction and recommendations regarding whether an assessment should be ordered for a defendant.
- Courts to make a finding regarding addiction for any offender having a clinical assessment. If offenders are found to be drug addicted, meeting present drug court eligibility factors and are prison bound, then those offenders would be sentenced to the drug court program regardless of their desire to enter the program.
- Judges to be given ultimate discretion in determining whether an individual poses a threat to society and should not be sent to a drug treatment facility as part of his or her sentencing.
The basic tenet behind Christie's policy is that no life is disposable and that it is a commonsense, fiscal, and moral imperative to help individuals dealing with drug addiction reclaim their lives with treatment, rather than warehousing them in prison.
"No life is disposable and every life can be redeemed, but not if we ignore them,” Christie said. “This program will provide mandatory drug treatment to appropriate offenders who are not a threat to society and who suffer from the disease of addiction—redeeming lives and healing families.”
Daytop hearing series: