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."
Christie, a Republican and former federal prosecutor, acknowledged that his proposal would not help thousands in New Jersey who want drug treatment but have not committed a crime.
More than 30,000 adults who sought drug treatment in 2010 were turned away, according to figures from the state's Division of Addiction Services. Treatment providers estimate that the unmet demand is even higher.
Many of the state's 193 licensed drug-treatment providers have waiting lists or are not equipped to handle intensive rehabilitation needs, said Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Health insurance plans may cover only a portion of treatment or none at all, she said. Funds for the poor, uninsured, or underinsured are scarce.
"You're lucky if you get 30 days in treatment," she said. "Do you have to get arrested to get drug treatment in New Jersey?"
Even funds dedicated to treating those who have been arrested for driving while intoxicated often dry up before the end of the year, said Manuel Guantez, executive director of Turning Points, which has rehabilitation centers in North Jersey.
Christie said he hoped his proposal would "create a culture" or a "movement" that would lead to more treatment centers in the state.
"I can only fix the things that I can fix," he said. "We're going to bid out these beds at the state level, the state's going to be paying for it, and yes, the state's going to get priority on those beds, no question."
Nearly 4,200 people participate in the current drug court program, which allows low-level offenders to avoid prison by undergoing drug treatment, according to state statistics from last month. Drug court is available in all 21 counties.
About half of the people who qualify for drug court treatment turn it down, said Sen. Ray Lesniak (D., Union), sponsor of a bill that would expand the program's eligibility. He worries that those who are forced into treatment could spoil the therapy for others.
"The group dynamic in any recovery program is critical to recovery," he said this week.
Some opiate addicts turn down drug court because the program does not allow methadone, a drug that can help heroin addicts manage withdrawal, Scotti said.
Christie, who spent five years as a board member of a Mendham drug-rehabilitation facility, said treatment experts can decide whether methadone is appropriate in the expanded drug court program.
As for the usefulness of forced treatment, Christie said, "if we mandate people to jail, we can mandate people to treatment."
"Any of us who have experienced this in our own families, which I have, the person never admits it," he said. "The fact that they say they don't have a problem when there's objective indicators that they do is even more of a crying need to get them into treatment."
Before the news conference, Christie toured a windowless garage of the Rescue Mission where people recovering from addiction worked to fill white plastic bottles with industrial lubricants used during tire changes. The shop, operated by Hutchinson Industries Inc., of Trenton, runs three shifts, employs 10 to 15 people at a time, and helps those completing drug treatment earn money to reestablish themselves.
Patrick Courtney, 55, of Pemberton, works full time in the shop as a quality-control manager. But for most of his adult life, he cycled in and out of prison, struggling with addiction to methamphetamines, cocaine, and eventually heroin.
His early stints in drug treatment did not work because, Courtney admits, "I only went there to get out of going to jail."
It was not until prison exhausted him that he finally made an effort to quit using drugs, and he accepted the help he was offered.
Forcing people into treatment might turn a few around, but not everyone, Courtney said. "Somebody's got to be ready; they've just got to be tired of going to prison, tired of that life."