Assembly Panel Advances Vainieri Huttle & Mukherji Bill to Overhaul Delivery of Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services in Prison

Bill Would Address Underlying Problems, Boost Long-Term Outcomes, Break Cycle of Recidivism & Save Taxpayer Money

An Assembly panel recently approved legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Raj Mukherji to overhaul the delivery of substance abuse and mental health treatment throughout the state's prison system in order to improve long-term outcomes for the incarcerated and save taxpayer dollars.

The measure (A-3721), which would establish a three-year pilot program to broaden Medicaid coverage in New Jersey to qualified individuals by reaching out to them through various stages of the state's criminal justice system, is part of a comprehensive 20-bill package that was introduced in September to address the growing opiate and heroin addiction crisis.

"Addiction and mental health issues often go hand-in-hand with incarceration," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "You can't treat these underlying health issues with incarceration alone. This legislation takes a pragmatic and cost-effective approach to ensuring more inmates get the treatment they need while sharing the cost with the federal government so New Jersey residents don't have to bear the entire brunt of it."

The sponsors noted that the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse's second report, "Behind Bars II, Substance Abuse and America's Prison Population," shows that of 2.3 million U.S. inmates, 1.5 million suffer from substance abuse addiction and another 458,000 inmates either had histories of substance abuse, were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of committing their crimes, committed their offenses to get money to buy drugs or were incarcerated for an alcohol or drug violation. Combined, the two groups make up 85 percent of the U.S. prison population.

Under the bill, the Commissioner of Human Services, in consultation with the Commissioner of Corrections, county welfare agencies and the county administrators of the county correction facilities, would establish a process to screen eligible individuals for enrollment in Medicaid following their arrest or indictment while they are awaiting the court's decision governing pre-trial release.

"Improving access to health coverage will greatly increase the likelihood that these individuals receive the treatment they need," said Mukherji (D-Hudson). "Without treatment for their underlying problems, they will continuously be subjected to a vicious cycle of recidivism with little hope for reclaiming or improving their lives."

The screening and enrollment process would also be offered to individuals who are not currently Medicaid eligible and are being released from a state prison or county correctional facility on or after the beginning date of the screening and enrollment process. 

The Commissioner of Human Services would, in consultation with the Commissioner of Corrections and the county administrators of the county correctional facilities, coordinate and provide training to hospital eligibility workers, county welfare agency staff and designated county correctional facility and state prison intake personnel, on the screening and enrollment process to be used for those individuals who are not currently Medicaid eligible.

The lawmakers also noted that the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse's first report on substance abuse among the nation's prison population said that 65 percent of the nation's inmates meet certain medical criteria for substance abuse and addiction but only 11 percent received treatment for their addictions.

The measure was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Monday.