TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law Thursday that changes the way New Jersey's criminal justice system deals with drug users to put more emphasis on treatment than prison time.
The new law expands eligibility for the state's drug court program and mandates that nonviolent, drug-dependent offenders receive treatment rather than prison time. It phases in the program over a five-year period.
Christie put his signature on the legislation at the Rescue Mission of Trenton, which offers residential and outpatient substance abuse treatment. He briefly toured the agency and talked with participants taking part in a typing class.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, said the war on drugs was well-intentioned but treatment has proven to be more effective. He said long prison sentences for drug-abuse offenders often don't succeed in ending their addiction, and they are released into the community only to commit more crimes.
"This will ensure that people have an opportunity to break the cycle," Christie said.
The state's drug court program has served more than 12,000 people over the last 10 years. More than 4,500 participants are currently in the program.
State data show the rate of re-arrest for drug court graduates within three years of graduation is 16 percent. Eight percent are convicted again for new crimes. The rates are 54 percent and 43 percent for offenders who don't participate in the program.
The Legislature and the governor will receive yearly reports on the program, including on completion and revocation rates, recidivism rates and costs.
It is unclear how many more offenders the program will serve — and how much it will cost — once it is fully implemented after five years. This year's budget included $2.5 million for the program, which is to begin in a year.
Christie said while he's sure the program will be successful statistically, he also believes "every life is precious," and saving one life would be an accomplishment. He said he saw miracles during his time as a board member at Daytop, a drug treatment center for adolescents with several New Jersey locations.
"I'm a believer in this because I've seen it myself," Christie said.
Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman, a Trenton Democrat who pushed for the legislation, said drug addiction is an illness that has to be treated. Society as a whole will benefit from the law, she said.
"We have too many inappropriate people in prison, and people go in and come out unprepared to back into society because those issues aren't addressed," Watson-Coleman said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.