New Jersey gets 'smart' on drug offenses

New Jersey gets 'smart' on drug offenses

Earlier this week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced a sweeping change to the way in which the Garden State will handle non-violent drug offenders.

Strapped for cash and looking for ways to cut costs where ever possible, the governor announced a comprehensive plan to help keep non-violent drug offenders out of the state’s already overcrowded jails.  But this plan is driven by much more than just budgetary constraints and cutbacks.

The governor also recognizes that running these types of offenders through the criminal justice system does nothing to make these individuals productive members of society.  The consequences of New Jersey’s draconian drug policies are putting otherwise law-abiding citizens in jail.  This practice is hurting the state’s poor and people of color the most.  The majority of those incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses in New Jersey are black men.  The status quo is only hurting their families and especially their children, as many of them rely on these men as the sole breadwinners in their family.  These unintended consequences are costing the state even more.

According to the Star-Ledger, the Governor’s initiative calls for:

  •  Expanding the state’s Drug Court program, which allows those convicted of certain non-violent drug offenses to bypass incarceration by agreeing to a strict regimen of court appearances and drug or alcohol treatment and other recovery services to break the addiction.
  • The creation of the Task Force for Recidivism Reduction, which will coordinate the many treatment and re-entry programs across the state government to bolster re-entry efforts, as well as make recommendations to the governor on how to improve those programs.
  • An assessment of the effectiveness of all re-entry programs currently offered using a real-time recidivism database, which will allow officials to track individuals and the success of the programs they participate in.  Using the data, the task force will identify programs that fail and suggest how resources could be better spent to improve recidivism rates.

Studies have shown, time and time again, that non-violent drug offenders who are sent to prison have a near 50% recidivism rate.  That means that half of all those incarcerated for simple drug charges end up back in prison, costing the state millions.

It seems that the governor has realized the message that Students for Sensible Drug Policy has been touting all along:  education and empowerment are a more effective [and less costly] means of deterring drug use and crime.  Incarceration only serves to exacerbate the ills of drug abuse.

There is an old adage that says, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  In other words, prevention is always cheaper than treating the symptoms of any disease.  This is true for drug abuse, as well.

And while the Governor’s plan isn’t perfect, it is far more progressive than what most other states are doing on this issue.

“No governor, myself included, provided the level of attention and execution of policy to afford ex-offenders this opportunity,” former NJ Governor Jim McGreevey said. “And there’s almost no political dividend.”

Rutgers-Eagleton poll released today shows that a majority of NJ voters support the marijuana decriminalization efforts currently being spearheaded by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) and SSDP.  Six in 10 New Jerseyans believe pot penalties should be relaxed, half believe possession should not be penalized at all, and one third believe it should be legalized.

The marijuana decriminalization movement is gaining steam in NJ, with 16 bipartisan co-sponsors in the assembly and a growing list of organizations endorsing the bill.

Should the legislature put this bill on Christie’s desk, signing it could be the smartest criminal justice policy move this governor makes during his tenure.

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