During his campaign, Gov.-elect Chris Christie understandably focused primarily on the troubled state of New Jersey’s economy and the disastrous condition of state government.
But he also promised to bring New Jersey out of what he called “the Dark Ages” when it comes to one aspect of law enforcement.
In his campaign manifesto, “88 Ways Chris Christie Will Fix New Jersey” point No. 74 read in part: “I will make our streets safer and reduce recidivism by … requiring drug rehabilitation and vocational training for nonviolent drug offenders.
If he succeeds in carrying out this campaign promise, it could save the state tens of millions of dollars annually.
I have spent much of my career as an attorney as an advocate for people who have found themselves caught in the legal system either because of substance abuse, mental illness, or a combination of both. Many of my clients are people who would likely have benefited years earlier if our justice system had included a more compassionate and effective public drug rehabilitation and mental health care component.
Unfortunately, despite decades of good intentions — and hundreds of millions of dollars spent over the years — the system that exists today in New Jersey is not up to the task. Ask anyone in our legal system who has spent time dealing with individuals who find themselves caught in a seemingly hopeless spiral of drug abuse. They understand, as our governor-elect so clearly does, that we simply must find a better way to address the very real challenge that nonviolent drug offenders pose to themselves and to society.
Drug abuse exacts a price on both the abuser and on the community. And when an abuser breaks the law and winds up in prison, it costs nearly $50,000 a year to house that person.
New Jersey taxpayers are spending as much as $350 million a year to house the estimated 7,000 nonviolent drug offenders currently in our state prisons. That’s more than the entire budget of the state’s Departments of Agriculture, Community Affairs, Education, Health and Senior Services, Labor and Workforce Development, and Transportation combined. It’s also more than the entire budget of the Department of Children and Families.
And what do we get for that $350 million? Nowhere near as much as we should. These drug abusers receive little to nothing in the way of treatment while in prison. When they are released, as often as not they return to the very behaviors that landed them in prison in the first place. The state is running little more than a very expensive warehouse, with a revolving door, for people who have the potential to become productive members of society if they had access to treatment.
Providing a nonviolent drug offender with an intensive regimen of treatment costs about half as much as it does to keep that person in prison for a year. If we changed our laws and the focus of our system toward an emphasis on treatment, we could quickly save as much as $175 million.
We must also recognize that many of those who abuse drugs also suffer from an underlying mental illness. Many of the people I have represented are using illegal drugs as a form of self-medication, vainly and destructively attempting to address untreated underlying mental health problems.
That is why the governor-elect should consider expanding his commitment to drug treatment programs for nonviolent offenders to include the diagnosis and, if indicated, treatment for underlying mental illnesses.
In addition, I would hope our new governor will consider establishing mental health courts, based on the successful drug court model. Nationally, about 200 jurisdictions have established mental health courts, and these courts are making a positive difference. For example, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, mental health courts reduced recidivism rates from 67 percent among those in the regular prison system to just 14 percent among those who went through that county’s mental health court.
Treating nonviolent drug offenders — and those nonviolent offenders suffering from treatable mental illnesses — will pay real dividends to our state. It will make our communities safer and it will save lives. It will also save taxpayer dollars.
In the midst of a genuine economic crisis, such treatment offers one of the few win-win propositions available to our new governor. It’s good social policy, good criminal justice policy, and good fiscal policy. That’s why I urge governor-elect Christie to move it higher up his list of the 88 ways he will fix New Jersey.— Ann Renaud