Christie’s drug court expansion met with skepticism from Democrats

CAMDEN – Gov. Chris Christie announced major changes to prisoner re-entry, rehabilitation, and prevention programs, marked by expansion of the Drug Court Program; appointment of an administrative coordinator; and creation of a task force on recidivism reduction.

According to the administration, New Jersey is “widely recognized as a national leader” in reducing recidivism and prison population. The Pew Center on the States’ State of Recidivism report, “The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” identified New Jersey’s 11 percent recidivism decline as among the steepest declines for any state during the report’s study period, from 1999-2002 and 2004-2007, the administration pointed out today. Since 1999, New Jersey’s prison population has declined more than 20 percent.

Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20), of Elizabeth, called the new initiative “a good first step in reform to a broken system…(b)ut much more is necessary to truly overhaul the prison system so offenders can lead a productive, crime-free life after they have been released from jail or prison.”

Lesniak recommended expanding the power of judges and prosecutors to grant admission into the drug court program for offenders who do not currently qualify.

The drug courts presently accept approximately 1,400 new participants per year; Christie is proposing expansion by identifying eligible drug-addicted non-violent offenders, providing them with “clinical assessments to determine their suitability for drug court” and sentencing those offenders to the drug court program regardless of their desire to enter the program.

Among Lesniak’s other recommendations were reforming “prohibitive” re-entry employment laws, for instance his bill barring employers from automatically disqualifying ex-convicts from employment, and instituting a “presumptive” parole system, which would allow for certain inmates to be released at their first parole eligibility date as long as they have cooperated with any prescribed treatment and have had no serious disciplinary infractions while incarcerated. The second measure would also save the state $45,000 per year, the senator said.

Another legislator interested in the re-entry issue, state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-15), of Lawrenceville, commented on Christie’s plans, with less scorn than Lesniak but like the senator lending her legislation to the reform discussion.

“I was pleased to learn that the governor is expanding the state’s successful Drug Court Program,” she said via email, “to give non-violent offenders the opportunity to receive treatment for their addictions and put an end to the criminal activity that often goes hand-in-hand with alcohol and drug abuse.”

The annual savings of $50,000 in incarceration costs is one reason the Drug Court Program seems like a winner, but the program also delivers on what today Christie called “opportunity costs.” As Turner defines them: “(The program) requires participants to obtain employment, pay penalties and child support, and meet other financial obligations, all of which contribute to our state’s economy in a positive way.”

As Christie noted, they also become better parents and taxpayers.

Turner said the municipal level needs attention in this regard, whereas her bill, S440, would permit counties to establish a central municipal drug court.

Earlier story:

Christie shifting gears to treatment, training for non-violent drug offenders


Christie’s drug court expansion met with skepticism from Democrats