Lesniak-Cunningham Bill To Provide Treatment, Recovery Alternative To Incarceration Approved

“Earn Your Way Out” Legislation Would Empower Offenders to Reduce Prison Term in Exchange for Participation in Successful Drug Treatment Course

TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senators Raymond J. Lesniak and Sandra Bolden Cunningham which would allow inmates dealing with substance abuse issues to “earn their way out” of incarceration by completing a rigorous substance abuse treatment and recovery program was unanimously approved by the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee yesterday.

“Through this legislation, we can empower drug offenders and inmates battling addiction to break the cycle of addiction and crime, and reclaim their lives and freedom,” said Senator Lesniak, D-Union. “It makes far more sense to spend existing Corrections dollars to reduce recidivism and address one of the root causes behind crime, rather than just keeping people behind bars. This bill focuses State resources away from incarceration and towards real rehabilitation for offenders whose crimes are motivated primarily by drug and alcohol addiction.”

“Our existing criminal justice system does not do enough to address the causes of crime, but simply isolates criminals from society and puts them behind bars, where, in many cases, they learn to become better criminals,” said Senator Cunningham, D-Hudson. “As a result, we have a revolving door policy at our prisons, where offenders are released without treatment, commit crimes upon their release in order to fuel their addiction, and are once again put behind bars. It’s time to invest our State’s Corrections budget in policies and programs designed to better protect State residents and rehabilitate criminals.”

The bill, S-2614, would establish a program known as the “Earn Your Way Out of Prison and Into Supervision, Treatment and Recovery Program” to create a treatment, recovery and self-responsibility alternative to incarceration for substance abuse offenders. The “Earn Your Way Out” program would be established in the State Parole Board, and would be open to inmates who are serving a sentence of at least three years, and meet a number of eligibility criteria, including a professional diagnosis of drug or alcohol dependence, an evaluation of the threat the person may pose to the community if released early, a psychiatric evaluation and consideration that substance abuse played a part in the original offense and that treatment and monitoring will likely benefit the person and reduce the likelihood that they will commit another offense.

“Obviously, the ‘Earn Your Way Out’ program isn’t going to make sense for every offender serving a prison sentence in New Jersey,” said Senator Cunningham. “This program would be subject to a fairly rigorous review and evaluation process before potential applicants can enroll, in order to make sure that offenders are serious about getting help for addiction treatment, and that they do not pose a threat to the community. We want to make sure this program is as successful as possible, and that enrollees aren’t paying lip-service to addiction treatment in order to get an early release from their prison sentence.”

From the original pool of eligible candidates, the Director of the “Earn Your Way Out” program would select 500 individuals to participate. If selected for the program, the person would be admitted into a Residential Community Release Center for six months to begin their individualized substance abuse treatment and recovery program. Individuals would have to show progress in treating their addiction, as well as participate in education, career-readiness and personal growth programs, and reach out to members of the community and their family for continuing treatment and support following their inclusion in the program.

After the individual’s six-month treatment in the Residential Community Release Center, their progress would be evaluated by a three-member review panel made up of the “Earn Your Way Out” program director, as well as representatives of the Department of Corrections and the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Department of Health. If they’ve shown sufficient progress, they would be assigned a parole officer and released into a residential treatment facility, halfway house, a partial care abuse treatment facility or an intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment center for an additional year and a half of addiction treatment. Following the completion of the treatment plan set forth by the three-member review panel, program participants would be moved to regular parole for three years or the expiration of their sentence, whichever comes first. If the program participant deviates from their treatment plan during the two-year term of recovery, they would be returned to prison.

“The ‘Earn Your Way Out’ program represents a paradigm shift away from incarceration for incarceration’s sake, and towards a more rational model of rehabilitating non-violent offenders,” said Senator Lesniak. “It costs less money to empower offenders to follow a course of self-responsibility, treatment and recovery than it does to house and feed inmates in a prison setting. Through this bill, we can get better results for our investment in corrections, keep people safe, and help criminals turn away from a life of crime, and become productive, law-abiding citizens.”

The bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration before going to the full Senate for review.