Gov. Chris Christie is proposing what might sound like a counterintuitive strategy to address the revolving door of drug abuse, crime and prison. He wants to expand the state's drug court, where substance-addicted, nonviolent offenders voluntarily enter treatment programs instead of going to jail.
But Christie proposes making treatment mandatory, not voluntary, for nonviolent offenders. Which raises the question: How effective can drug treatment be if individuals aren't there willingly?
"Which will do more harm: To put someone in jail or in treatment?" said Dr. Manuel Guantez, executive director of Turning Point in Paterson. Jailed nonviolent drug offenders "end up getting a PhD or a master's in how to do drugs, how to sell drugs, how to commit crimes." The treatment approach "introduces the idea of doing something with your life."
Arthur Townes, 45, born and raised in Newark, began using drugs and alcohol at age 17. He's been jailed twice, the first time while in his early 20s. "I did not receive any treatment, and subsequently came back out and went right back to the same behavior. I started injecting more drugs, and harsher drugs."
A robbery conviction sent him back to jail in 1995 for three years, but this time, he went into a pre-release drug treatment program with Community Education Centers. Treatment, he said, "shifted my thinking pattern."
Legislation is needed to make drug court mandatory. In the meantime, Christie is proposing $2.5 million in additional funding in the 2013 budget to make treatment available to nonviolent offenders already in the criminal justice system. About 1,500 nonviolent drug offenders currently in the state prison system will have the option to participate immediately, Christie said during a press conference earlier this month.
This is "the most significant change I've seen in this field in a long time," Guantez said. "This is huge. It's a game changer."
There has been a groundswell of bipartisan support in the legislature for making drug court mandatory, and experts expect the money to fund it going forward will come from dollars saved by fewer incarcerations.
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