AG announces new program in East Orange to assist nonviolent offenders overcoming addiction

EAST ORANGE, NJ — Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and Kelly E. Levy, acting director of the office of the New Jersey Coordinator for Addiction Responses and Enforcement Strategies, announced Nov. 1 the launch of a new pilot program to establish prosecutor-led diversion programs in six municipal courts across New Jersey that will help nonviolent offenders overcome drug addiction.

The program, known as Opt for Help and Hope, will initially launch at six pilot sites, which were selected based on an assessment of existing drug-related data and resources. One such site will be the East Orange Municipal Court; other sites are the Central Municipal Court of Atlantic County, Pemberton Municipal Court, Hamilton Township Municipal Court, Paterson City Municipal Court and Franklin Township Municipal Court.

The Opt for Help and Hope initiative, which is being funded with proceeds from the attorney general’s settlement with a company allegedly involved in the false advertisement of opioid products, will be administered under NJ CARES. The goals of the program are to offer early intervention for defendants whose offenses are nonviolent, to help establish additional pathways to recovery that saves lives, and to minimize the deleterious impact that arrests and convictions can have on the stability needed to sustain recovery. 

Throughout New Jersey, the existing Recovery Court Program — formerly known as the Drug Court Program — assists defendants in overcoming alcohol and other drug dependencies while resolving related criminal charges. The Recovery Court Program is focused on nonviolent drug-related cases in Superior Court, which generally handles more serious criminal charges.

By expanding the addiction support services available to municipal court, Opt for Help and Hope will assist individuals experiencing substance use disorder before their drug-related conduct escalates to the kind of more serious criminal conduct that is prosecuted in Superior Court. Opt for Help and Hope is the first statewide initiative focused on offering support services for substance use disorder to municipal court defendants.

“Nonviolent individuals suffering from addiction deserve treatment and a chance to live healthy lives, rather than criminal prosecution,” Platkin said. “This new program will provide people with the resources they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle and, in turn, alleviate the volume of criminal cases that come to municipal courts. I am confident that this initiative will positively impact our fight in breaking the vicious cycle of crime and addiction.”

The county prosecutors with jurisdiction over the six participating municipal court systems will act as recipients for the grant funds and implement Opt for Help and Hope in the six selected municipal courts. The county prosecutor’s offices in Atlantic, Burlington, Essex, Mercer, Passaic and Somerset counties will split the funding equally and receive base funding in the amount of $333,333.

“As the coordinator for addiction-fighting efforts under the Department of Law and Public Safety, NJ CARES is thrilled to oversee this innovative and hopefully life-changing initiative,” Levy said. “Opt for Help and Hope will be another tool law enforcement has to target individuals with addiction issues in an attempt to connect them to services.”

Each participating county prosecutor’s office must set up a program that screens potential participants at the time of arrest or at any point in the court process. After agreeing to enter the program and completing paperwork, participants are given a peer recovery coach who will arrange for the person to be assessed for services, including treatment at a community-based treatment provider and recovery support, and transportation to appointments. At the time of the person’s court appearance, the prosecutor overseeing the case will determine whether the person has “meaningfully engaged” in recommended services. If the person has shown engagement, the prosecutor may move to dismiss or downgrade the charges. If not, the prosecutor may request an adjournment to give the person more time to participate in services. If a person declines participation in the program, they can still connect with the services but will not have the benefit of getting their charges dismissed or downgraded.

“In keeping with this office’s mission to seek justice, serve justice and to do justice, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office has supported numerous programs which focus on helping nonviolent drug offenders find the resources they need to overcome addiction,” acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens II said. “Once freed of their addictions, they are far more likely to lead law-abiding lives. As a former municipal court judge, I am keenly aware that local courts, especially a court with the volume of East Orange, contend with the criminal ramifications of addictions on a regular basis, and they can greatly benefit from programs that address this very issue. Therefore, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office wholeheartedly supports this new program, which will offer a lifeline to individuals in the thrall of addiction while helping to safeguard the public at large.”