Our legal system is based on the premise that people who break the law should be punished regardless of whether the crime is large or small. But the priority always should be on saving lives.
That is exactly what is at stake in the case of the Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act recently passed by the state Senate and Assembly.
The act gives criminal immunity to people who seek medical help in case of drug overdoses. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, more than 6,000 state residents since 2004 have died from a drug overdose. It is the leading cause of accidental deaths in New Jersey.
The alliance says most people who overdose do so in the presence of others. But due to the fear of arrest and prosecution, many will not call 911. In the majority of cases, had victims received prompt medical attention, they still would be alive.
That's where the Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act comes in. A person who in good faith seeks medical assistance for someone experiencing a drug overdose won't have that call for help used against them in criminal court. It's not a blanket immunity for drug users but it should be enough to assure them that if someone needs their help, they should call 911.
One of the bill's most vocal supporters is Patty DiRenzo, of Blackwood, who had a 26-year-old son die of a heroin overdose about two years ago. She believes others knew of her son's overdose, but did not call 911. He might have had a chance of survival had there been a good Samaritan law.
While the measure has passed both the Senate and Assembly, it awaits the governor's signature.
As a former prosecutor, Gov. Chris Christie has been a champion of the criminal justice system, showing deference to drug laws, such as when he refused to back a bill that would have decriminalized minor marijuana possession.
But he also led the way when it came to creating a new system of drug courts for nonviolent offenders, recognizing the value of treatment over prison time in certain cases. That makes it anyone's guess whether he will sign the good Samaritan bill.
But the governor should recognize that the bill isn't decriminalizing drug possession. It is, however, recognizing the premium we, as a society, put on saving a life. We urge the governor to sign the measure.