With Governor's Signature, New Jersey Expands Drug Courts

Governor Chris Christie signed a bill Thursday (July 19) that expands New Jersey's drug court program and mandates treatment rather than jail time for drug abusers convicted of non-violent crimes. That makes New Jersey the first state to require drug treatment for certain offenders.

For months, the governor has championed the bill, which the legislature passed last month with bipartisan support. Christie said the law would reduce the costs and enhance public safety by cutting down on repeat offenses. In his 2013 budget, he asked for $2.5 million to help fund the court's expansion, which will happen gradually over the next 5 years.

The new law also requires annual reports on the program to the legislature.

“I'm a believer in this, because I've seen it happen,” Christie, a former board member at a halfway house, said at a press conference. “I watched miracles happen every day….I watched over a period of a year people reclaim their lives and become productive members of society.”

Attitudes about drug offenders are shifting nationwide and each state has embraced voluntary drug courts, which have been shown to save money by reducing recidivism, as Stateline has reported. One national study found that having programs returned $2.21 for every dollar invested.

According to a 2010 report on New Jersey's drug courts, 8 percent of program graduates later return to prison, a small number compared to the 43 percent reconviction rate of prison system's general population.

In its voluntary form, New Jersey's program accommodates just 1,400 new participants each year, while failing, according to the governor's office, to overcome the biggest hurdle to treating drug abuse: denial.

Under the new law, non-violent drug addicts could be sentenced to drug court regardless of whether they apply to the program. Judges would be given ultimate authority over whether offenders pose a threat to society, in which case they would not be sent to drug treatment.

“By expanding on the success of the voluntary drug court program and reaching even more people through mandatory treatment in their sentencing, we can save taxpayer dollars and, more importantly, help these individuals get their lives back,” Assemblywomen Bonnie Mercer, a Democrat, said in a release.

Many public safety experts and drug court officers have been optimistic about the increasing use of drug courts, but as Stateline has reported, some worry that mandating programs could undermine their effectiveness.

“You want to make sure you're dealing with someone who has a true addiction and you're not wasting resources on people who don't need (the program),”  Deborah Saunders, senior analyst at the National Center for State Courts, told Stateline in May. “You don't want to just pull in everyone who has a drug charge.”

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