While gay marriage constitutes the latest topic capturing national attention among followers of the never-dull administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the addiction treatment community in the governor’s home state is abuzz over his recent call for mandatory treatment for nonviolent offenders with substance use problems.
Although even the staunchest supporters of treatment were somewhat surprised that addiction treatment was elevated to a signature issue in last month’s State of the State address by Christie, they also point out that his attention to this subject in general shouldn’t catch anyone off guard.
Christie has witnessed the societal impact of substance use problems from numerous perspectives, including as a prosecutor and as a former board member of a New Jersey addiction treatment organization (Daytop Village). In addition, media reports pointed out that the governor’s wife has engaged in volunteer work at a number of treatment facilities in the state.
Stating that “everyone deserves a second chance,” Christie proposed in last month’s State of the State speech a policy shift that would divert nonviolent offenders to mandatory treatment. Many media outlets lauded the proposal, with the Philadelphia Inquirer writing in an editorial that the governor “smartly recognizes that addiction is still winning the 40-year-old war on drugs, so he is changing up New Jersey’s strategy.”
Few details are known about how the Christie administration will seek to achieve this goal, both financially and programmatically. More information could be forthcoming in the governor’s budget proposal, due to be released later this month.
Debra L. Wentz, CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Inc., said some as-yet unsubstantiated reports have indicated that an interdepartmental task force that was formed by the administration last year to centralize anti-drug efforts could drive much of the change the governor wants to see.
Wentz adds that others have reported that a plan to divert offenders to treatment could be initiated as a pilot program in a couple of New Jersey counties. At this point, she says, her organization’s advocacy focus regarding the administration’s proposal will center on ensuring that treatment services be evidence-based and delivered by credentialed providers.
In a Jan. 29 commentary she wrote for the Star-Ledger newspaper, Wentz stated that “Christie is taking advantage of the confluence of public sentiment, fiscal imperative, compassion and good policy that has the potential to change lives and definitively solve the state’s fiscal crisis.” She added that at present, fewer than 7% of state residents with substance use disorders are able to access needed treatment services.