One governor strongly touts mandatory drug court, treatment

Harsher sentences or availment of non-trial mitigation strategies? Incarceration or treatment?

The debate over how the criminal justice system at both the federal and state level should handle defendants facing drug charges has been enduring and often polarizing. Aligned on one side are proponents of ever-more stringent sentencing dictates resulting in progressively longer prison terms. Advocates of long lockups say that the specter of a long time spent behind bars sends a strong message of deterrence in drug cases.

Many in Georgia and elsewhere across the country disagree with that, saying that such an emphasis is outdated, illogical and long past the point at which it has been proven effective. They argue that lengthy terms of incarceration are especially problematic for persons facing relatively minor charges, such as possession with intent to distribute a small amount of a drug such as marijuana. Is a decades-long prison term in such a case a logical or equitable outcome for either an inmate or society at large?

What has often been termed America’s “war on drugs” is facing progressively more strident and detailed criticism from diverse camps questioning its philosophy and efficacy.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie can be added to that list, with Christie recently indicating strong willingness to sign into law a bill that has just reached his desk that makes drug treatment — not prison — mandatory for all first-time non-violent drug offenders. The plan in that state is to first create a pilot program to be operated selectively, to be followed after evaluation to all cases across the state.

Simply locking up drug offenders and releasing them years later without treatment, says Christie, “is why recidivism rates go up and why they don’t get better.”

Christie envisions a wholesale overhaul nationwide of how non-violent drug offenders are dealt with by the criminal justice system, saying that the time has come to create a mandatory drug court for all offenders who qualify. Keeping drug-dependent persons who are not dangerous in prison is a losing equation, he says, for both individual inmates and taxpayers.

Source: The Star-Ledger, “N.J. Senate passes bill creating mandatory treatment program for nonviolent drug offenders,” Matt Friedman, June 28, 2012