Christie wants mandatory drug court for nonviolent offenders in N.J.

Next week, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie is expected to announce details of his plan requiring nonviolent offenders to enroll in “drug courts.”

In his budget address Tuesday, Christie pledged $2.5 million to expanding New Jersey’s drug courts, which have been offered to offenders in every county since 2004.

“It’s the first step toward reclaiming these lives and treating drug addiction for what it really is — a disease that can be conquered, but only with effective treatment,” Christie said Tuesday. “Let’s not turn our backs on our citizens suffering from this affliction.”

Christie first announced the goal of mandatory drug courts as part of a lager recidivism-reduction effort last fall, but details on how it would work have remained fuzzy. Currently, nonviolent offenders can choose prison time or a court-supervised rehab program, which usually lasts two to five years.

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According to the governor’s office, the new proposal would allow judges to assign offenders to drug court instead.

Some, including Phillipsburg lawyer Scott Wilhelm, worry the mandate would undercut the program’s success.

“The participants have to want to address their drug addiction and have to want to participate in this intensive probationary program,” Wilhelm said. “If they’re directed to go there, and they’re truly not interested in it, I believe that there could be a lot of failure.”

Chris Deutsch, with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, applauds Christie’s move. Deutsch acknowledges existing courts would have to be tweaked to work for all offenders.

“I think the issue will now be to take the principles of drug court — ongoing court monitoring, teamwork, frequent drug-testing — and expanding it to make sure they can serve all individuals who enter,” Deutsch said.

Deutsch believes New Jersey would be the first in the nation to have a mandatory program.

Currently about 1,500 nonviolent offenders each year go through drug courts, which boast lower recidivism rates and decreased costs compared with prison time.

It is unclear at this point how many additional offenders will enter the system with Christie’s proposed change.

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