TRENTON — A measure that would change the way New Jersey’s criminal justice system deals with nonviolent drug offenders moved out of committee Monday and heads to the Assembly.
The Assembly Appropriations Committee approved on a 9-0 vote a measure mandating that nonviolent, drug-dependent offenders who would benefit from treatment be sentenced to the state’s drug court program rather than prison.
It phases in the statewide program over a five-year period, beginning with at least three counties in the first year. Participation in drug court is currently voluntary.
Gov. Chris Christie has also proposed mandatory drug court statewide for people who qualify. He has said it’s time to empty prisons of inmates who are drug-dependent but not criminals.
Figures from the state Department of Corrections tracking drug offenders for three years after their release show 54 percent of those released from prison were arrested and 43 percent re-convicted. Sixteen percent of drug offenders who graduated from a drug court program were arrested and 8 percent re-convicted in that same period.
Under the bill, the program would cost an estimated $20 million. Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-Hunterdon, Mercer, one of the measure’s primary sponsors, said that’s less than the expense of incarceration and gets people on the path to recovery.
“Imprisonment is a costly solution, and too often with nonviolent drug offenders, it is not a solution at all,” Watson said. “Many of these individuals are leaving prison worse off than they entered it.”
The bill also includes an annual evaluation of the program’s effectiveness over the phase-in period, including recidivism rates and costs.