CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie said New Jersey’s 15-year-old drug court program will be expanded as part of a plan to ease inmates’ transitions back to broader society and to get help for addicts who are involved in many crimes.
The move came with an admission from the Republican governor. The so-called “War on Drugs,” which brought harsh penalties to drug offenders, hasn’t worked, he said.
“We’re missing the best in terms of how we can help these folks turn their lives around,” he said. “We think that somehow we send a person who is drug addicted to prison, they’re going to lose their drug addiction.”
Speaking at Cathedral Kitchen, a Camden institution that operates both a soup kitchen for the needy and a culinary training school for former offenders, Christie said the expanded measures could save taxpayers’ money by sending fewer offenders to prison, cut down on future crimes and create better citizens.
He signed an executive order outlining the changes later Monday.
He also said he will appoint a member of his staff to oversee prisoner re-entry programs along with the chairman of the state Parole Board.
The drug courts, which have been running in New Jersey since 1996, give some non-violent offenders an option to be in drug-treatment and testing programs— often instead of jail sentences. Convicts in drug court still have criminal records.
The major change, which Christie wants to initially try in two counties, would allow judges to sentence offenders to treatment programs instead of prison.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said that would get addicts who are in denial help that they may need. Currently, those charged with crimes have to ask to have their cases handled in drug court to be enrolled.
The programs, which generally last three to five years, also offer links to other services such as job training and literacy classes for those who need them.
The drug courts take on about 1,400 people per year across the state.
Christie said they cost around $11,000 per year per offender — compared with about $39,000 per year to keep in inmate in state prison.
And, he said, drug court graduates generally fare better than their counterparts who are incarcerated.
More than half of offenders sent to prison are re-arrested for indictable offenses. The state Judiciary, which runs the drug court, says the re-arrest rate for drug court graduates is about one in six.
And about five in six of the people who stick with the program have jobs when they graduate.
Christie said his wife, Mary Pat, has been asking him to do more for drug addicts who are accused of committing crimes.
He said one component of his plan is to set up more links between state prisons and programs like Cathedral Kitchen.
Forty-eight-year-old Rhein Alston is enrolled in the cooking school while he lives in a Camden half-way house. He recently served four years in prison for a drug-dealing conviction. He has an internship with a food-service company lined up for next month when he’s scheduled to be paroled.
“This has helped a lot,” he said.
Christie said he recognizes from his days as U.S. Attorney that programs like that help and that for many offenders, treatment would work better than prison. He said his background as a federal crime-fighter gives him political cover to push the position.
“I’ve been called a lot of things,” he said. “Soft on crime isn’t one of them.”
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