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Explainer: Drug Court Offers Substance Abusers Treatment Over Jail Time

Nonviolent criminals given a way to clean up and learn life skills -- at one-fourth the cost of incarceration for a year

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On the campaign trail for the GOP presidential nomination, Gov. Chris Christie is often eager to point out the extensive work his administration has done to help to those struggling with substance abuse. It’s an issue he describes as close to his heart and critical policy in a state reeling from a heroin epidemic that killed more than 700 people in 2013.

A key part of this effort is the significant expansion of New Jersey’s drug court program, which currently provides treatment, support services, and monitoring to nearly 6,000 residents with substance-abuse problems who have been convicted for a first-time, nonviolent crime. The diversionary program appears to be working well, with the vast majority of graduates staying clean, avoiding jail, and finding jobs -- at less cost to taxpayers than jail time, according to state figures.

While the approach is popular with many Democrats, including President Barack Obama, Christie insists it is not about politics and has pledged to replicate the model elsewhere if elected president in 2016. “This is the right thing to do. And it’s not about saving money or achieving good statistics. Because we’re talking about people … people who could be my son or daughter, people who could be your kids, or your husbands or wives,” Christie said at a July campaign event at a treatment facility in Camden. “Drug court is about making every one of our citizens long-term productive members of society again, because we should want that for everyone.”

How it works: Drug court is designed to help alcoholics and other addicts kick their habits, while reducing the number of nonviolent crimes like burglaries, prescription stealing, and prostitution that are often are tied to drug abuse. Many participants continue working, live at home, and participate in their communities while under drug-court supervision, allowing them to benefit from the support of friends and family. This also helps them avoid problems often associated with long prison sentences: negative influences from other, violent criminals, languishing work skills, and lingering, untreated addictions.

“Instead of settling for jail time every time, we need to give people the chance to get help,” Christie said in Camden. “We don’t just help people get clean, we help them get back to work -- something research tells us has a huge impact.”

Court officials carefully weed out any first-time criminals involved with violence or sex crimes. The rest are referred for a clinical determination, a medical assessment of their treatment needs, explained Donna Plaza, the state’s drug-court manager. Some go to in-patient, residential treatment; others remain at home and attend sessions during the day or evening. They are monitored by the court and drug-tested -- as often as three times a week at first -- throughout the program, which can last up to five years.

The program is divided into three phases, Plaza explained, and participants can’t advance until they fulfill all the requirements. While the process is unique to each participant, generally the first phase lasts at least three months; before moving on, an offender must have a job or be in training or school, in addition to attending group meetings and staying clean. Phases two and three usually last six to nine months each and build on strengths and skills participants learned earlier in the program. Those that test positive for drugs and fail to participate can be remanded to jail to serve the balance of their sentence. (Christie signed a law on Monday that protects those receiving approved medication-assisted treatments; substances like methadone and buprenorphine that are used by doctors to treat some addictions, but show up as a positive drug test.)

“Each phase is a really big step,” Plaza said, describing how judges will announce the achievement to the court and present a certificate, all celebrated by a round of applause.

Measure of success: So far, the program appears to offer impressive results on several fronts, including curbing the cycle of criminal activity that often surrounds drug abuse. At the Camden event, Christie noted that, nationwide, more than half the drug offenders who are released from prison are rearrested and 43 percent go back to jail. In New Jersey, only 18 percent of the state’s drug-court graduates are rearrested within three years, with just seven percent convicted of new crimes, according to court statistics.

In addition, figures show that 97 percent of participants test clean for drugs and alcohol during their participation in the program. Some 86 percent are employed when they graduate; nearly two-thirds have a drivers’ license; and more than half have healthcare insurance. Plaza’s favorite measure of success: women in the program have given birth to 387 drug-free babies, helping to reduce the toll on the next generation.

The need for drug court is clear. Each year, nearly 10,000 new prisoners enter the state’s correctional system. While only 18 percent are sent away for drug offenses, officials say drugs also play a role in many of the violent crimes that make up 57 percent of incarcerations. Studies show as may as half the prisoners in the system are still addicted and drugs are easily available behind bars.

Evolving approach: First created in Miami, in the late 1980s -- when an overload of addicts’ accused of minor crimes flooded the justice system -- drug court programs now exist in all 50 states in some form or another.

In New Jersey, a voluntary program began in 1996 under then Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, when courts in Camden and Essex started sending first-time low-level offenders who were addicted into treatment instead of jail. Within three years, courts in Mercer, Passaic, and Union counties started their own programs. In 2000, the state Judiciary developed a plan to phase in consistent programs in all counties over four years. Since then, nearly 18,000 people have participated in the state’s drug court.

Christie started to expand the program in 2012 and, through a series of laws, it is now mandatory in nine of the state’s 21 counties; by 2017, eligible addicts arrested in any county will be diverted into the drug-court program, Plaza said. The governor also required supplementary job training and other support services, in addition to the addiction counseling at the core of the program.

While some critics fault the governor for not providing enough funds to support these goals, Christie added $8.5 million in this year’s budget to meet increased demand. Plaza said this money will provide another 107 long-term beds -- spots that could serve 300 participants over the course of a year.

Overall, the budget includes a total of $63 million for court costs, treatment programs and other services, she said. More than half of the funds are transferred to the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, within the Department of Human Services, which contracts with local providers who run the addiction services, job training, and other programs.

According to the governor, the cost to taxpayers of providing this local treatment is nearly a quarter of the cost of keeping an addict in jail for a year. Christie said that while the state spends an average of $39,000 per inmate, per year, it pays around $11,000 to send that person through drug-court treatment.

But it’s not just about saving money, the governor has said. “If we have a chance to save that life, we have an obligation to,” Christie said in Camden. “Let’s end the stigma about the disease of addiction; and let’s stop waging a war against people who need our help the most.

Lilo H. Stainton is an award-winning reporter who covered politics and public policy in New Jersey for more than a decade and later served as press secretary to Gov. Jon S. Corzine. She has also worked as a communications strategist, campaign director, and advocate for coastal protection in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

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