Progress is hard to come by in today’s political climate. It has been especially hard in matters of criminal justice, where for many years the fear of being “soft” on crime drove politicians to compete on the toughness scale. The ratchet drove sentences up, never down. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we now hold 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
But we are seeing now some progress toward lowering incarceration rates. After years of being branded soft on crime, Democrats have become timid while Republicans have had greater freedom to think through the problems created by three decades of increase in jail populations. It has burdened state budgets and devastated minority communities. (In Louisiana, the most punitive state, one in 86 adults is doing time, nearly double the national average. Among black men from New Orleans, one in 14 is behind bars and one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation.)
Like fellow Republican governors Tom Corbett (Pennsylvania) and John Kasich (Ohio), Gov. Chris Christie has championed reductions in incarcerations and greater use of treatment and rehabilitation for nonviolent drug offenders. In July, he signed, S-881, amending the drug-court law, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-14, to increase judicial discretion and reduce prosecutors’ ability to block rehabilitation treatment for drug offenders. No longer may a prosecutor block admission to a treatment program instead of prison, even if the defendant has two or more separate prior convictions for non-violent crimes of the third degree.
Special-treatment programs will be phased in over five years. It is a small step forward but an unnecessarily timid one. Democratic legislative reluctance was behind the long phase-in period. There is an opportunity for bipartisan progress here. The political mood in the country supports more vigorous efforts. The 2012 Democratic Party national platform calls for the federal government to “help state, local, territorial, and tribal law enforcement work together to combat and prevent drug crime and drug and alcohol abuse (and expand drug courts).” But the 2012 Republican Party platform is full-throated in its support “of new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first-time offenders to rehabilitation,” saying:
“[M]ore attention must be paid to the process of restoring [incarcerated] individuals to the community. Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner re-entry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization. … [An] emphasis on restorative justice, to make the victim whole and put the offender on the right path, can give law enforcement the flexibility it needs in dealing with different levels of criminal behavior.”
We have already seen in the October 2010 Drug Court Report the rate at which drug-court graduates are rearrested for a new indictable offense is 16 percent and the reconviction rate is 8 percent. This compares to a rearrest rate of 54 percent and a reconviction rate of 43 percent for drug offenders released from prison. According to that report, an average institutional cost per inmate is approximately $38,900, whereas the cost for an active drug court participant is roughly $11,379.
We urge the Legislature to take another look — and draw the conclusion supported by the evidence — that the five-year phase-in period is unnecessarily long, and move to faster implementation statewide of mandatory treatment rather than incarceration for nonviolent offenders, including repeat offenders, whose recidivism is evidence not of their criminality, but of the inadequacy of our rehabilitation efforts.