PATERSON, N.J. - Gov. Christie on Wednesday extolled the virtues of drug and alcohol rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration - a key component of his agenda last year - in moral, economic, and religious terms.
"We're dependent upon each other. All of us. And so this problem is all of our problem," Christie said at Passaic County Community College, where he delivered the keynote speech for the Passaic Vicinage's drug court graduation.
"Locking folks away and offering them no help may make us forget for a moment, or a day, or a week, or a month," he said. "But it will come back. So we need to reach out with open hearts and open minds."
Christie, a former prosecutor, gained broad support in the Legislature last year when he called for mandatory drug court for nonviolent offenders instead of jail time.
The Republican governor's proposal contrasted with the war-on-drugs approach that has filled U.S. prisons and attracted national attention. Legislators and governors are watching New Jersey's model as they consider how to reform their criminal justice systems, said a spokesman for a national association of drug courts.
Despite bipartisan support at home, questions about funding and resources remain.
The law, funded at $2.5 million, took effect in July in the vicinages of Ocean, Hudson, and Hunterdon/Somerset/Warren Counties. The requirement is set to expand statewide over five years, with implementation in 2014 scheduled for the Atlantic/Cape May, Mercer, and Passaic vicinages. (Vicinages are Superior Court districts.)
In addition to nonviolent drug offenders, those who face robbery and burglary charges also are eligible for drug court.
Although the 24 graduates of Passaic's program Wednesday were not affected by the law, Christie said their success was evidence that drug courts work.
"We're all one of God's creations. We are all one of God's children. And I don't believe that God places creations on this Earth who are not redeemable," said Christie, who sat on the board of a Mendham drug-rehabilitation facility for five years.
"I don't believe that God places creations on this Earth who have no value. I don't believe that God places creations on this Earth whom we can throw away like the evening trash."
Few have objected to making drug courts, which focus on treatment and recovery, more available to low-level offenders. Participants are required to spend five years in the program, appearing in court and taking drug tests frequently.
Drug courts surfaced in New Jersey in 1996 and have since expanded to all 21 counties. Only 8 percent of graduates have been convicted of another crime in the state since 2002, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts, which runs the drug court program.
The recidivism rate for those who leave prison is 43 percent, according to Department of Corrections data.
While estimates vary, Christie said incarcerating a single person costs $49,000 annually, compared with about $25,000 for a drug court participant.
"Even if you're cold-hearted . . . you've got to care about that," Christie said. "It makes our state more productive."
Questions linger about how the state will manage the program.
"The governor has not adequately funded the program," said State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), who sponsored the legislation.
Lesniak said $30 million would be needed to cover next year's expansion. He recommended taking money from the state Department of Corrections, which had a $1.02 billion budget in fiscal 2013.
Christie spokesmen did not respond to a request for comment about funding.
Another problem, Lesniak said, is a shortage of beds. Participants currently wait about 90 days between the time they enroll and the time they enter treatment, he said.
State facilities lacked sufficient resources to help addicts even before the new law passed. The state could not accommodate about 37 percent of the 84,000 people who wanted substance abuse treatment in 2010, according to the Division of Addiction Services.
The division has asked the state for more residential treatment space, Lesniak said.
"In order to really do this successfully, they're going to have to make sure there's treatment infrastructure in place, so that if courts are handling an influx, they're staffed properly, and people are able to get appropriate treatment quickly," said Chris Deutch, spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Even so, Lesniak, who frequently spars with Christie, said the law has rolled out better than he expected.
"I was skeptical about the mandatory provision. People who are forced into recovery generally don't recover," he said. Faced with a potential judge's order to participate, he said, "they're volunteering for it."