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Gov. Christie said Monday that he wants to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison and into rehabilitative programs, a move expected to save money and help lower the recidivism rate.

During a visit to Camden, the governor signed an executive order to expand the state's drug-court program and to create a task force to centralize the state's prisoner-reentry efforts and determine what barriers exist for inmates upon release.

The governor also wants to create a recidivism database that tracks the success of reentry programs.

As a former U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, Christie said, he was in a good position to call for prison reform. Nobody, he said, can call him soft on crime.

"I've been called a lot of things," he said. "Soft isn't one of them."

Christie made the announcement at the Cathedral Kitchen on Federal Street, a community group that has offered free meals to the poor for more than 30 years.

Since 2008, the organization has run a culinary-arts program for ex-inmates and others who need job skills.

During his tour, Christie navigated the busy kitchen, where five men crowded around a table chopping green peppers and celery for chili that would be served to the nearly 400 people expected to show up for dinner Monday night. Farther down the kitchen assembly line, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies sat cooling on white parchment paper.

Christie said his wife, Mary Pat, wanted him to focus on giving former inmates a legitimate second chance. Drug addiction often thwarts a former inmate's return to society, along with the difficulty in finding employment because of a criminal record.

"We're missing the boat in terms of how we can help these people turn their lives around," Christie said as his wife stood by his side.

Christie called for expanding the state's drug-court program, which has operated in all 21 counties since 2004 and diverts nonviolent drug offenders from jail to treatment programs.

The two pilot programs will allow judges to sentence drug offenders directly to the program, rather than requiring offenders to seek enrollment in the program, said Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts.

Christie said he was still working with the judiciary to determine the best location for the two pilot programs.

Graduates of the drug-court program are less likely to return to crime, according to an October 2010 study by the state judiciary.

Only 16 percent of drug-court graduates are rearrested, compared with 54 percent of nonviolent drug offenders who enter the prison system. And only 8 percent of those who go through drug court are convicted of another crime, compared with 43 percent of nonviolent drug offenders who are imprisoned.

The country's prison population escalated sharply in the 1980s and 1990s when mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders put more nonviolent offenders behind bars.

As prison budgets have grown, state officials have looked to alternative sentencing to ease the burden. It costs about $39,000 a year to incarcerate a person in New Jersey. It costs $11,300 to put that same person through the drug-court program, which includes frequent drug testing and intensive supervision.

The "War on Drugs" - an effort that began under President Richard M. Nixon to reduce drug sales and use in the United States - was well-intentioned, Christie said. But it isn't working as officials had hoped.

"Just putting people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses makes no sense for our society in the long haul," he said.

Christie appointed Lisa Puglisi as his coordinator for prisoner reentry. Puglisi, a lawyer who represented the Department of Corrections and later the state Parole Board, will serve as the governor's main adviser on prisoner-reentry policy.

Puglisi, with James Plousis, chairman of the Parole Board, will cochair the Task Force for Recidivism Reduction.

The task force will include representatives of various agencies that can help, and sometimes hinder, an ex-convict's reentry into society.

Obtaining a license or official ID, managing child-support payments, even getting a job in a restaurant where liquor is served can, without the right assistance, be difficult or impossible for an inmate, Plousis said. The task force aims to find the problems and help ex-inmates overcome them.

Although New Jersey, like Pennsylvania, has a recidivism rate of at least 40 percent, according to a recent study by the Pew Center on the States, New Jersey has decreased its rate 11 percent since 1999. It has also reduced its prison population 11 percent to 21,182 inmates since its peak in 1999.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's prison population continues to increase. It's up 41 percent since 1999, and the state now holds more than 51,000 people.

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