Measure to change N.J. drug treatment advances

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak has become a champion since his home was invaded.

Posted: April 04, 2012

TRENTON - It took State Sen. Raymond 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 it would be senseless for the men to do prison time without being treated for the drug addiction that led them to rob him.

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

The senator has become the leading advocate for legislation that would expand the number of criminal offenders eligible for court-supervised drug and alcohol treatment and launch a pilot program in a couple of counties to 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 Committee on 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 by 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. Christie, a Republican, has proposed mandatory drug treatment for all nonviolent drug offenders statewide.

The governor, a former federal prosecutor, said his plan would free up prison space for more serious criminals and save the state money by stopping the cycle of warehousing people with drug problems.

He has 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 starting 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 two-part proposal consists of a pilot program of mandatory drug treatment for qualified offenders in two counties, possibly Essex and Camden, along with expanded eligibility statewide for offenders to volunteer for treatment.

"We don't know that mandatory treatment is effective," Lesniak said, advocating a more cautious approach than the governor. Another hurdle is the paucity 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 court system and requires participants to undergo 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.

Lesniak's proposal to remove some disqualifying factors in the current law is estimated to make 300 more criminals eligible for treatment. His pilot program of mandatory treatment is expected to cover an additional 275.

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 from $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 is traveling in the Middle East this week and was not reachable for comment. His office didn't immediately return an e-mail request for comment.

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