Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie laid out his three-part plan to address substance-abuse treatment Monday after speaking with more than 100 addicts and alcoholics in treatment at Caron Renaissance, a not-for-profit drug treatment center in Boca Raton.
Asked what drug treatment would look like under a Christie presidency, he said his efforts would begin in the Justice Department.
“First, you have to change the mindset of prosecutors,” the former federal prosecutor said, speaking to a dozen treatment experts, Caron board members, executives and alumni. “Sometimes justice means prosecuting and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, said he would create a drug court in each of the 93 federal court districts. Those courts would handle the cases of non-violent drug offenders, who make up 50 percent of the cases in the federal court system, Christie said.
“If someone is violent we will always have a jail cell for them,” Christie said. “But for those folks not engaged in that conduct — small petty crimes — we need a diversion program.”
Next, Christie said, he would give the money saved by sending addicts to drug courts instead of prison to the Department of Health and Human Services to create more drug treatment programs.
The third piece would be a president who doesn’t think addicts are a lost cause, Christie said.
“We’re going to think differently about this in our country,” Christie said. “It’s also how we talk about it and treat each other.”
Christie grabbed attention on Oct. 9 after delivering an emotional, unscripted plea to make substance-abuse treatment more humane. In his six-minute comments at a town hall meeting at a bar in New Hampshire, Christie said his personal experience with his mother’s cigarette addiction and a law school friend’s overdose death from painkillers left him with empathy for addicts.
The video went viral, racking up more than 8 million hits, and giving him a much-needed boost in the polls. Bipartisan praise came from politicians, including Michael Botticelli, head of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. Celebrities, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, also took note.
However, several hours before his appearance on Monday, the Democratic National Committee issued a statement criticizing Christie’s drug policy as governor of New Jersey.
According to the statement, during Christie’s tenure as governor:
- Admissions to drug treatment programs have dropped and the administration has not assessed how many beds the state needs.
- State spending on treatment has declined
- Christie supported drug tests for people applying for public assistance.
Although Christie did not take questions from the media Monday, earlier news reports credit Christie with signing a good Samaritan law, which protects those who report overdoses from prosecution, expands drug courts and creates a drug abuse hotline.
Leaders and alumni from Caron Renaissance were so impressed with Christie’s viral video that they invited Christie to speak. Caron Renaissance, is an arm of Caron, the Pennsylvania-based not-for-profit that has been providing behavioral health and addiction treatment for more than 60 years.
Caron provides at least $14 million in scholarships every year, said Executive Director Bradley Sorte.
“The only way we’re going to be able to do this effectively is to be open with one another and share — not just as practitioners but as every member of the community,” Sorte said.
An FBI task force has been investigating insurance fraud and patient brokering in the South Florida drug-treatment industry for 18 months, The Palm Beach Post has reported in an ongoing investigation of the industry.
In 2014, the FBI raided on two local businesses that provided housing for recovering addicts — Good Decisions in West Palm Beach and Halfway There in Delray Beach. No charges have been filed.