Calling addiction a treatable disease, Gov. Christie said Thursday that he would require treatment for nonviolent criminals with drug dependence, a program that would take at least a year to start.

In the meantime, Christie would offer yearlong drug treatment to 1,000 to 1,500 low-level offenders now in prison.

"I believe that this will be, if we do it the right way, one of the lasting legacies of this administration," Christie said at a news conference at the Rescue Mission of Trenton. "Budgets come and go. Taxes go up and down. But saving lives . . . that lasts forever."

Lawmakers in both chambers have introduced bills that would alter the state's drug court program, making treatment mandatory for any qualifying offender determined to have a problem with substance abuse. Drug court, which began as a pilot in Camden and Essex Counties in 1996, has allowed some offenders to avoid jail if they volunteer for treatment.

Christie budgeted $2.5 million in fiscal 2013 for his initiative, but it would cost more to fully implement. If treatment for the current inmates costs more than he expected, he will ask the Legislature for more money, he said.

In the long term, as many as 7,000 people arrested annually could qualify for the program. Because it costs as much as $49,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate, Christie said, the state would save money by moving nonviolent offenders out of prison and into rehabilitation.

Treatment officials said Christie's $2.5 million investment is small; they estimate it is enough to add 50 beds, which could treat 200 to 800 people, depending on the severity of their addiction.

But Christie's statement is big, they said.

"We've waited for a governor to seize that bully pulpit and bring the focus to this issue that it deserves," said John Hulick, who has been in the drug-treatment field for 20 years and was executive director to the Governor's Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. "For him to take the stance and so eloquently call it what it is, which is a chronic illness . . . it will bring hope to thousands of families who live in the shame of the stigma of drug addiction."

Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or, or follow on Twitter @joellefarrell.