Christie Courts Mandatory Treatment for Drug Offenders

Beth Fitzgerald | March 23, 2012 | Health Care
All nonviolent drug users could be ordered to compulsory drug court instead of prison

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.

Jailing nonviolent drug offenders costs twice as much as treating them in residential drug programs. According to Debra L. Wentz, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, the dollar figure is pegged at $50,000 a year in jail vs. $25,000 at residential drug treatments.

Wentz’s association has not taken a position on the mandatory proposal, “but what we can say is that when individuals receive treatment, their likelihood of continuing to recover, to get employment, to reintegrate into their community and not commit future crimes is greatly increased,” Wentz said.

Yet, about half of those eligible for drug court elect to go to prison instead of going into treatment. “They say, ‘I don’t want to be in therapy, I don’t want to sit in a group and talk about my life. I would rather do jail,’ ” Guantez said.

For some offenders, the arithmetic of jail time seems to make more sense because they expect to serve a reduced sentence if they opt for jail, Guantez said. Others fear violating the terms of drug court and getting sent back to jail. They could end up serving more time if they violate drug court than if they just went to jail in the first place.

About 2,000 people enter Turning Point each year, and the drug court refers 200 to 300 of them, Guantez said. They have a lot in common with those who find their way to treatment center without first getting involved in the criminal justice system.

“In addiction treatment, there is usually denial,” Guantez said. “Most people who come into treatment are not really coming in on their own. It is often a spouse who forced them in, or an employer who forced them in. Very seldom do you get someone in who says ‘I really have a problem and I need help.’ ”

Turning Point educates individuals about the nature of addiction — that it is a chronic disease, like diabetes. “You meet somebody where they are at, and then you start to provide them with examples of life with or without a substance. And you get them to come to terms,” he said. “Most people don’t see a way out. They don’t see a life without a substance. They can never even imagine their lives without it. So you start to intervene.”

In his 2013 budget, Christie cited the Judiciary’s 2010 Drug Court Report finding that the rate at which drug court graduates are re-arrested is 16 percent, and their reconviction rate is 8 percent. That compared to a 54 percent re-arrest rate for drug offenders released from prison and a reconviction rate of 43 percent.

Townes says his life would have been different had he gotten treatment the first time he went to jail. “There was an innate interest in me to do the right thing. Somehow I began to learn how not to do the right thing, and that behavior just became practical and normal.”

But drug treatment at Community Education Centers (CEC), where he now works, literally turned around his life. He learned about relapse prevention, substance abuse awareness, life skills management, and cognitive therapy. “I was exposed to an eclectic approach to treatment, all geared around shifting your thinking and your belief systems. It helped me understand some of my behaviors. And it worked.”

Townes remains involved with CEC alumni, who provide one another with information, job leads, help getting back into school, and someone to “pick up the phone and call to say, ‘you know what, I’m having a bad day.’ ”

Now an advocate for drug treatment, he said, “It makes sense to invest in peoples’ lives.”

Candace Singer, research analyst for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence New Jersey, testified during the budget hearing that $2.5 million would not be adequate for what Christie hopes to accomplish in fiscal 2013.

“It is beyond dispute that addiction treatment and recovery support services save taxpayer dollars and will significantly reduce budget costs to the state for the consequences of untreated addiction, such as those incurred in healthcare, public safety, criminal justice, workers compensation, welfare and child abuse and neglect,” she said.