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Opinion: Christie's Call for Compassion, a Good First Step

Drug courts -- which sentence users to treatment programs rather than jail time -- are not a panacea.

Among the big surprises in Gov. Chris Christie's State of the State speech was his call to "reclaim the lives of drug offenders" through expanded use of "drug courts" mandating treatment programs for nonviolent offenders in place of imposing jail time.

"Everyone deserves a second chance," Christie added, "because no life is disposable."

Stirred by that message of compassion, former governor McGreevey -- who counsels inmates as part of a prison ministry -- led the audience to their feet in a standing ovation as Christie went on to proclaim that a treatment approach "will send a clear message to those who have fallen victim to the disease of drug abuse We want to help you, not throw you away. We will require you to get treatment. Your life has value."

These sentiments, as powerful as they are unexpected coming from this law-and-order leader, are reminiscent of Nixon going to China. But who better than a former federal prosecutor to lead the way in a paradigm shift from three-plus decades of zero tolerance lock-'em-up policies toward drug offenders that have failed miserably -- at incalculable cost to society, especially lower-income black and Hispanic communities where law enforcement is concentrated?

Tempering reform euphoria, however, we must ask how much of a change for the better is this in practice? Substituting court-ordered treatment in place of long prison terms looks like a fundamental change. But reams of data from around the nation suggest that expanded reliance on drug courts -- in which drug users are "sentenced" to treatment programs rather than jail time -- is no panacea for reducing drug abuse.

Indeed, it may even lead to increased jail time for large numbers of offenders who had to plead guilty to a drug charge as the price of admission to a court-run program that placed them at risk of serving hard time after they relapsed or failed a urine test. This happens in 30 percent to 70 percent of cases, according to an exhaustive research project sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance in New York.

The DPA report, boldly captioned "Drug Courts Are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use," should be required reading for all legislators, so that New Jersey can follow the governor's leadership while avoiding the problems found in other states that have opted for drug courts.

Among the warning facts found by the DPA researchers are these:

  • "Drug courts often fail to reduce costs or jail time:" Why? Too often they "cherry pick people expected to do well" with or without treatment. Or they focus on offenders charged with a "petty drug law violation, typically marijuana," which is among the least addictive illegal drug -- if it is addictive at all.

  • As a result, drug courts often exclude hard-core drug abusers who are most in need of long-term care and treatment to help them break the cycle of addiction and crime. Thus, courts typically don't divert the hard cases from lengthy prison terms, where they are denied needed treatment, such as methadone.

  • "Drug courts leave many people worse off for trying." While conceding that drug court "success stores are real and deserve to be celebrated," the DPA found that "too often participants spend more time in jail while in drug court" supervision. Why? When they relapse, as most do, judges may show little patience and force them into prison cells.

  • Perhaps most unsettling, overall "drug courts have made the criminal justice system more punitive toward addiction, not less:" That has happened because, despite having adopted "the disease model of addiction," as has Gov. Christie, "judges penalize relapses with incarceration and eject from the program those who are not able to abstain from drug use for a period of time deemed sufficient."

  • In short, the DPA report observes: "The participants who stand the best chance of succeeding in drug courts are those without a drug problem, while those struggling with compulsive drug use are more likely to end up detoxing in a cramped jail cell or crowded infirmary

With all that, should reform-minded legislators reject the governor's clarion call to institute drug courts? No. For all its potential flaws, drug courts can be a step in the right direction -- toward a "voluntary or probation-supervised treatment that often produces better results," according to the DPA. Here's how:

First, drug courts must focus on the hard cases of heavy heroin and meth addiction, not on those charged with marijuana offenses, such as possession.

Second, marijuana, as a majority of Americans agree, doesn't belong in the criminal justice system. New Jersey should decriminalize private adult use, thereby freeing up state and local law enforcement to concentrate their shrunken budgets on violent crime, which has started to surge again.

Third, drug courts need sustained budgetary support. Even though treatment is a fraction of the cost of incarceration at more than $30,000 per year -- costlier than tuition at Princeton -- treatment programs get the axe during tight budget times. In California 60 percent of voters endorsed Prop 36, which mandates probation and treatment for "low-level drug law violations," but that stop legislators from slashing the budget from $145 million to zero.

Finally, we as a society need to reexamine the basic concept that treats drug use, even of the hard stuff, as a serious crime. Addiction, whether of drugs or tobacco or booze, is a medical issue. In 2001 Portugal decriminalized drug use; while police issue citations like traffic tickets they do not arrest users. The results have not fostered drug tourism or increased drug use rates, "which continue to be among the lowest" in Europe.

Like Nixon opening the door to normal relations with China, Christie -- by proclaiming that drug addicts are people who deserve a "second chance" -- has opened the door to a rational and compassionate discussion of our draconian drug laws. Let's walk through it and find what's on the other side.

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