The Assembly's Judiciary Committee on Monday approved a bill that mandates nonviolent drug offenders receive treatment rather than a jail sentence and creates a two-year pilot program in two counties. The panel also passed a measure that would erase the offenders' criminal records if they successfully complete the treatment program.The State Senate has yet to introduce a companion bill, but these are important steps. If the state wants to get the costs for the criminal justice system under control, it has to rationalize the way it handles many of the crimes and sentencing guidelines.
Gov. Chris Christie has proposed mandatory drug court statewide for people who qualify. He says it's time to empty prisons of inmates who are drug-dependent but not criminals.
Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, a sponsor of the mandatory treatment legislation, says the governor's program would cost $20 million to implement. But Christie has only budgeted $2.5 million in the coming year.
Coleman says a pilot program also would give authorities a chance to assess the effectiveness of mandatory treatment.
However, the proposal to automatically expunge drug charges from the records of those who complete treatment met with resistance from judiciary officials. They said the courts don't have the capability to carry out the mandate because the records are on paper, not electronic.
Committee Chairman Peter Barnes, though, noted the difficulties that someone with a drug record has in finding a job or housing, even if the charges are more than a decade old.
"In this economy, one small blemish on your record will knock you out of the box," he said. "People make mistakes early on; we're trying to give people a break."
Separately, steps need to be taken to address recidivism among inmates. 60% of those who have been incarcerated end up back in the prison system in New Jersey.