Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Madness Had to Stop

New Jersey First Lady Mary Pat Christie recently got to the crux of the issue of drug addiction and crime, one being inseparable from the other. Ms. Christie was compelled to try to so something. “This reentry thing is what grabbed me,"she said, "because the rate of recidivism was terrible. The fact that these kids – now adults, really – are going right back into a prison population – the madness had to stop.” Madness indeed. If insanity is doing the same thing time and again and expecting a different result, it would be hard to find a better example of it than what we have seen in two generations of drug war sentencing policies. These policies have left in their wake countless derailed lives and billions of misspent dollars.

It is maddening, and terribly sad, when you consider how many sentenced on drug-related crimes, often little more than children when they first got in trouble with the law, have had their youth devoured in prison. And once they have a criminal record and have drug problems that go unaddressed, many released from prison stand a strong chance of returning there. Data show the percentage of inmates whose crimes were related to drugs use is 81 percent, with 60 percent of inmates are rearrested within three years of their release, and half are re-incarcerated, each at a cost of just under $50,000 per year.

Ms. Christie’s husband said, “Anything that we can do to reclaim lives that can be lost to drug abuse and prison would be a great thing to do on a humanitarian level. Secondly, it’s certainly an economic factor. If we can turn these people from being economic drains into productive citizens, it’s great for the economy.” With his bully pulpit, the governor should consider putting the might of his office to help turn these words into action.

Expansion of drug courts and a new measure proposed in the New Jersey Legislature both take aim at drug use as the root of so much crime. Drug courts have already proved a great success in the state in referring certain offenders to treatment, which in turn has significantly reduced recidivism. Likewise, the legislative proposal deals with the core problem of drug use by cutting an inmate’s sentence by two years in exchange for participation in a program that begins six months before release and continues two years after. No one should regard either Drug Courts or the legislation as easy outs; they have demanding regimens that do not appeal to all eligible inmates.

Mary Pat Christie made no guarantee but said she would have her husband’s “ear on this” issue. We know the governor recognized the importance of addiction treatment from his having served on the board of directors of Day Top, a New Jersey treatment facility for youth. We also know that he has put the state’s fiscal health above all else. It happens that broadened use of drug courts and other measures to increase treatment of non-violent drug offenders would allow him to use public dollars in a far more productive way as he helps more citizens return to productive lives. On top of that, he can make his wife happy. It’s hard to imagine a more compelling set of circumstances.