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On Wednesday, March 1, 2012 the Rescue Mission was the place to be as Governor Chris Christie outlined further details on his mandatory drug treatment for non-violent, drug-addicted offenders. In his State of the State Address in January and his Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Address earlier this month, the Governor announced his intention to take action on his belief that no life is disposable and that drug addiction must be addressed for what it really is – a treatable disease.
Prior to his 10:45 a.m. press conference the Governor toured the Hutchinson Industry Project at the Mission and talked to Mission clients who are working part-time while receiving individual and group counseling and other supportive services during their stay at the Mission. One of the Mission residents indicated to the Governor that he had been dealing with his addiction for twenty years and initially he was very resistant to treatment, but now is happily in recovery and that being in place with positive people dedicated to his treatment had made a huge difference in his life.
More than two dozen television and cable TV stations and newspapers crowded the front TV room of the Mission’s Halstedt Building for the Governor’s press conference. Also in attendance were a host of State Legislator from both political parties with a history of involvement in drug treatment and criminal justice issues.
The Governor was introduced by Delia Bass-Dandridge, President of the Mission’s Board of Directors, who thanked the Governor for proposing a plan to “reclaim the lives of drug offenders through expanded use of drug courts.” Ms. Bass-Dandridge said that the Mission believes, as does the Governor, that “everyone deserves a second chance, because no life is disposable.”
The Governor opened by calling his plan a “bipartisan effort to reclaim lives.” He indicated that he would be building on the existing Drug Court program, which offers low-level offenders the option of entering drug treatment after pleading guilty to charges rather than going to jail. While the current program is voluntary, the Governor’s program would be mandatory if fully implemented in 2013. The proposal will require approval from the legislature.
While indicating that he was “not denigrating efforts of the past,” he characterized them as “failures” and as simply “warehousing people.” He noted these approaches had “high rates of recidivism and high costs to society across the board.” He added that it costs approximately $49,000 to keep a person in prison and around half of that for in-patient treatment. The Department of Correction estimates 7,000 offenders will qualify for the program annually, once it is fully implemented.
The Governor indicated that he favored expanding Drug Court in all 21 counties in New Jersey and making participation mandatory for those charged with low-level drug crimes. Nonviolent drug offenders would undergo assessment to determine whether they have a drug problem and should undergo treatment. He indicated that he would favor the court considering a defendant’s cooperation in the process of drug treatment and assessment in rendering a sentence. He indicated this approach would free up jail space for more serious criminals and give nonviolent offenders a second chance.
“The underlying cause of many crimes in our society is in many cases drug-addiction or addiction-motivated behavior and for too long our criminal justice system has left it unaddressed,” the Governor said. “Right now, New Jersey has a limited but nationally acclaimed Drug Court program with a strong lesson of reducing recidivism and reclaiming lives by breaking the vicious cycle of crime and addition. This small, yet effective program has only a fraction of the non-violent addiction that might be eligible to participate in it.”
The Governor indicated that there are currently between 1,000 to 1,500 nonviolent offenders in New Jersey prisons who would have the option to participate in the program. He envisioned a pilot project in 2012 which offer inmates the opportunity to voluntarily commit to the program for one year. According to the Governor, 2012 would be the year in which the state would build capacity.
The Governor expressed the view that addiction is a “treatable disease” that most “people never admitted to.” He expressed the view that one should not underestimate the power of being surrounded by positive influences versus the wholly negative experience of being incarcerated with an untreated disease.
The Governor said that he anticipated that some critics will say his administration is soft on crime by allowing drug offenders to avoid jail time, though he cautioned against such accusations. “We have, over the years that we’ve been working on law enforcement, made it very clear to people that we’ll be tough when we need to be tough,” he said. “But we need to be smart all the time. And our current way of dealing with this problem, in my view, is not smart. And it doesn’t serve the people in this state in the best way possible.”
The Governor spoke compassionately about his five years of service on the board of Daytop Village in Mendham, New Jersey in the 1990s, stating that drug addiction was “not just an urban problem.” He spoke from the personal experience of knowing that some have a predilection to addiction. “What folks here at the Rescue Mission do, what folks at Daytop Village do, and at any number of these places across New Jersey, is they make miracles happen, it affects your life. And it’s always affected me,” Governor Christie said.
He closed his comments by indicating that “I believe that this will be, if we do it the right way, one of the lasting legacies of this administration. Budgets come and go. Taxes go up and down. But saving lives… that lasts forever.”
The Governor introduced Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa, who indicated that “from a law enforcement perspective the approach makes sense.”
In response to questions from the press the Governor indicated the following:
•“I don’t see any legal roadblocks to doing this.”
•“We want to change the way drug court operates – clinical and legal assessment at the front end.”
•“If we can mandate people to jail – we can mandate them to treatment.”
•“We can scale-up capacity as we reduce prison slots.”
•“The $2.5 million in the budget now is a marker.”
•“Nonprofits, private sector and faith-based entities could contract with the state.”
•“Project success would be measured by reduction in recidivism.”
•“I hope that this program will create a culture focused on treatment and recovery from this disease.”
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