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Amid praise for Christie drug-treatment plan, big challenges, too

For three years, Marc DiGiovannantonio's parents watched the Washington Township High School graduate - a member of the bowling and golf teams - transform into someone who nodded off at all hours and stole everything from his mother's engagement ring to his sister's clothes to pay for opiates, said his father, Jim.

For three years, Marc DiGiovannantonio's parents watched the Washington Township High School graduate - a member of the bowling and golf teams - transform into someone who nodded off at all hours and stole everything from his mother's engagement ring to his sister's clothes to pay for opiates, said his father, Jim.

Finally, in March 2008, DiGiovannantonio, 21, was admitted to what was supposed to be 30 days of inpatient treatment in Glassboro. He got 10. As an adult without insurance, that was all the state would cover, his father said.

A year and a half later, DiGiovannantonio was dead from an overdose.

Gov. Christie this year declared drug addiction one of his top priorities. He wants New Jersey to be the first state to force nonviolent drug-addicted offenders into treatment instead of prison. Addiction experts have applauded the Republican governor's progressive stance.

But the plan won't help people like DiGiovannantonio, who seek treatment voluntarily but can't pay for it. Treatment providers question the fairness of giving criminals, especially those who don't want treatment, priority.

"People are literally dying trying to get into treatment," said Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey branch of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Do you have to get arrested to get drug treatment in New Jersey?"

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak bristled at the idea that the governor's plan to expand state drug courts would take away from others seeking treatment.

"What we're attempting to do is to address a very serious societal problem," he said. "In doing that, we are not diminishing the addiction services outside the criminal justice system."

But treatment centers often have waiting lists, and drug court participants, whose treatment path is paid in full by the state, often take up many of the beds, providers said. Even current drug court participants wait an average of four weeks to get into long-term treatment, said Ed Lyons, chief clinical officer for Integrity House, one of the state's largest treatment centers, with locations in Secaucus and Newark.

State money to support those who can't afford treatment is sometimes frozen or runs out before the end of the year, officials said. Those without insurance who seek help voluntarily - as DiGiovannantonio eventually did - often wait the longest or are released from treatment before they are ready.

"There are so many kids that this is happening to, it's practically an epidemic," said Jim DiGiovannantonio. "They're adults, but they're not worried about health insurance. They're worried about getting their next high."

New Jersey, like the rest of the nation, doesn't have enough money or treatment centers to help all who seek drug treatment. Of the more than 52,000 people admitted for drug treatment in 2010, more than 30,000 adults were turned away, according to figures from the state's Division of Addiction Services.

Raquel Jeffers, deputy director of the state division of mental health and addiction services, called Christie's idea to help drug-addicted offenders "heroic."

"It is destigmatizing in and of itself to have a governor with such a therapeutic approach to addiction," she said.

But it's also vital to put resources toward helping people with drug addiction "before the consequences necessitate criminal justice involvement," she said.

Christie's announcement late last year that he wanted to help drug-addicted offenders made a big splash. A GOP former prosecutor with a national profile was calling the war on drugs a failure and advocating rehabilitation rather than prison for low-level offenders with drug and alcohol problems.

But Christie's plan remains in its infancy.

The governor proposed setting aside $2.5 million for fiscal 2013 to create the mandatory program. Drug court, a rigorous five-year program, helps addicts avoid jail, stay clean, and obtain employment and housing.

But making drug court mandatory in all 21 counties, which would double the court's 4,000 participants, could cost up to $35 million, according to estimates from the state's administrative office of the courts, which runs drug court.

In the meantime, the governor offered to spend some of the seed money to help 1,000 to 1,500 nonviolent drug-addicted offenders currently behind bars. He even said he would ask the Legislature for additional money if inmates stepped forward for treatment.

"We will work hard to make the beds available to them, to move them out of prison," Christie said in March. "We shouldn't send them back out drug-addicted."

But so far, the state Department of Corrections says it has had no guidance from Christie on how to shift inmates into the drug court program.

Drewniak said the Governor's Office was working on that with the various departments involved. It would take a year to draw up the drug court expansion plans, and the governor hoped to offer treatment to prisoners sooner.

"We're going to try to do whatever we can get that aspect of it going faster," he said earlier this month. "This is a very complex matter."

Christie, who spent five years on the board of a Mendham drug-rehabilitation facility, acknowledged in March that nonviolent offenders who go through the program would receive priority on inpatient treatment.

"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."

The drug court program, first introduced in Florida in 1989, has expanded to every state. It's cheaper and more effective than prison, statistics show.

Even the most intensive, inpatient rehabilitation costs less than prison. Housing an inmate for a year costs about $46,000, according to the state Department of Corrections. By comparison, a year of inpatient care costs about $25,000, Lyons said, but clients don't stay that long; they can be there as little as 30 days or up to six months, he said.

Of New Jersey's drug court graduates, 84 percent remain arrest-free up to three years after graduation, and of those arrested, only half are convicted, said Carol Venditto, the state's drug court manager. About 55 percent of those who leave prison end up back behind bars, according to the Department of Corrections.

Though some providers question whether forced drug treatment is effective, Jim DiGiovannantonio welcomes the idea. He tried to force his son into treatment early on, but the young man would sign himself out.

"In his eyes, he didn't have a problem," DiGiovannantonio said. "I had to be in front of the same judge 10 times. I wanted this judge to put him in rehab, yet he kept letting him out."

At the time of DiGiovannantonio's death, his father was working with a prosecutor to see whether he could get DiGiovannantonio, who had been arrested for petty thefts, into the drug court program.

Drewniak said he could not comment on plans to expand addiction treatment centers because it was too early in the process. But the governor's plan depends on having more places available for drug addicts to get help.

"A long wait for someone to get into treatment can really be destructive," said Chris Deutch, director of communications at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. "Frankly, [Christie's plan] can't work without available treatment."

Drug court has always been coercive, offering the program in lieu of lockup, Deutch said. Christie is taking it one step further.

"Drug courts have already demonstrated that you can use the leverage of the criminal justice system to keep people from using drugs," Deutch said. "New Jersey's stepping up to be a proving ground for this. . . . I think there are going to be a lot of eyes of New Jersey to see if this works and if it can be expanded all over the country."