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Bill: Give more drug criminals treatment, not jail

By Angela Delli Santi

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 3 2012 3:55 p.m. MDT

TRENTON, N.J. — It took Sen. Ray Lesniak a couple of days to get over the fright of awakening to two intruders standing over his bed one night in 2009, but the Union County Democrat said he soon realized how senseless it would be for the men to do jail time without being treated for drug addiction, which caused them to rob him in the first place.

Lesniak worked with the prosecutor and testified at both men's trials, advocating for treatment rather than jail. He was successful for one, Brian Kinney. The other, Antoine Neal, has been released after served time; a prior conviction made him ineligible for the Drug Court program.

The senator has now become the leading advocate for legislation to expand the number of criminal offenders eligible for court-supervised drug and alcohol treatment and begin a pilot program that will automatically enroll low-level drug offenders in a recovery program.

"I feel a lot safer knowing that at least one of them got drug treatment instead of prison," Lesniak told the Senate Budget panel Tuesday. "(Neal) has recently been released from prison, but his chance of committing another crime against another victim and of returning to prison is much higher than (Kinney's)."

The measure was approved unanimously, 12-0. It now heads to the full Senate for consideration. A similar bill has been introduced in the Assembly and referred to the Judiciary Committee.

Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has proposed mandatory drug treatment for all nonviolent drug offenders in the state. The governor, a former federal prosecutor, said the program would free up jail space for more serious criminals and save the state money by stopping the cycle of warehousing people with drug problems. He set aside $2.5 million in start-up costs as part of $46 million for drug courts in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The main difference between Christie's proposal and the bill advancing in the Legislature is scope: Christie's would mandate drug treatment for eligible offenders statewide; Lesniak's would start as a pilot program in two counties, possibly Essex and Camden.

"We don't know that mandatory treatment is effective," Lesniak said, advocating a more cautious approach than the governor. Another significant hurdle is the lack of treatment beds and professionals to handle an influx of new clients. "We don't want to deny someone who volunteers for treatment because someone else was forced into treatment."

New Jersey's Drug Court program is administered by the courts. It requires intensive supervision, including frequent drug testing and court appearances and tightly structured regimens of treatment and recovery services. Judges determine whether an offender is eligible based on the nature of the crime, an assessment of drug dependency, prior criminal record and availability of treatment.

The current proposal would expand the number of criminals who are eligible by removing some disqualifying factors in the current law. An estimated 300 of so more people would qualify each year.

The pilot program mandating treatment would bring another 275 or so nonviolent offenders to treatment.

The cost is said to be about $3 million for the enhanced eligibility and about $5 million for the mandatory pilot.

Lesniak said the cost of mandatory treatment statewide would require $25 million to $35 million and add 1,600 people to the program.

Sen. Paul Sarlo, chairman of the Budget committee, said the governor's start-up appropriation falls far short of the amount needed to require treatment statewide.

Christie was out of the country this week and not reachable for comment. His office didn't immediately return an email request for comment.

Lesniak said the program will eventually more than pay for itself. But until prison populations start to shrink because inmates are being treated rather than warehoused, the program will require annual funding.

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