In his State of the State address last week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie surprised many by outlining his plans to mandate treatment for non-violent drug offenders. “No life is disposable…every one of God’s creations can be redeemed,” Christie declared, to applause from Republicans and Democrats alike. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Christie is right; it’s about time more states recognized that low-level drug users are often victims (of dealers, drug traffickers, and other criminals) who need help to fight their addictions. As we’ve said before, incarceration does the opposite of what we want to accomplish—it turns those nonviolent users into criminals. Treatment, on the other hand, provides the tools necessary to start and sustain a new life in recovery. It offers that second chance that everyone deserves.
We know that treatment is cost-effective, and that every dollar spent on treatment returns $12.00 or more in reduced incarceration and health care costs. Governor Christie’s plan is the right idea—not just fiscally, but on a human level as well. Many people who turn to drugs have had tragic life events or have felt alienated or abandoned in some way; bad things may have happened to them, but they’re not bad people. It’s important that we as a society recognize this, and that we remove any existing barriers that might prevent people from getting the help they need.
Even violent offenders (those who may be a danger to society and therefore unsuited for a community-based program) deserve treatment. We must recognize the necessity of providing treatment in prison as well as through outside programs. Without substance abuse education, counseling, and the development of healthy coping skills, these individuals may only become more violent. So let’s not forget about in-prison treatment programs—many violent offenders have lost their way and are unlikely to recover without this type of help.
Obviously, the criminal justice system needs to give careful consideration to who exactly would benefit from treatment—we can’t just assume that all nonviolent drug offenders are addicts. But while it’s true that addicts can commit crimes, it’s also true that criminals can use drugs. And with 80 percent of all state prisoners reporting a history of substance abuse, it’s certainly worthwhile to implement a screening and assessment process that will determine the best route for each individual.
We understand that state treatment centers are crowded, and that drug treatment advocates want to prioritize funding for individuals who are self-referred, not court-mandated. But coming through the criminal justice system doesn’t make someone “less worthy” of treatment. True, very few people who enter treatment are immediately glad they did—but research has shown that people who are mandated to treatment do just as well as those who are not. Treatment motivates countless individuals to make lasting and positive changes in their lives.
Our country loses much money and many lives to addiction each day. While it may seem economically or politically difficult for states to invest in treatment, in reality it costs substantially more if they don’t. It’s in all of our best interests to invest in treatment, both for those who seek it on their own and for those mandated by the criminal justice system. Treatment shouldn’t merely be accessible for one group or another; it should be available to everyone and anyone. I hope that other states will follow Governor Christie’s leadership and recognize that treatment is not a frivolity—it’s a necessity.
Howard P. Meitiner
President and Chief Executive Officer