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Bergen County Aims to Be State Model for Municipal-Level Drug Court

Facing surging overdose deaths, county prioritizes drug treatment over incarceration for nonviolent offenders

Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli
Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli.

Shunting drug offenders to a special court that sends them for treatment rather than to prison has been standard practice in New Jersey Superior Court for two years. Now this approach may soon be replicated at the municipal level, if a new program in Bergen County is successful.

County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli has been working with judges in the county on a program that would create a municipal drug-court approach, beginning with a single countywide court but ultimately aiming for a similar approach in each municipal court.

The issue is urgent in the county, which recently reached 40 overdose deaths this year, roughly triple the rate of several years ago.

Molinelli plans to start the new approach with 200 county residents who have been arrested in recent months as part of a joint program in which county and municipal detectives worked with those in Passaic County to track and arrest Bergen County residents who purchase drugs in Paterson and other Passaic municipalities. He described these plans during a recent hearing held by the Assembly Human Services Committee at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack.

The arrestees, who are primarily young adults, were nearly all addicted to heroin and other opioids. Molinelli said it doesn’t make sense to give the offenders a criminal record, when there is evidence that this will only worsen their addiction.

Instead, once the new initiative is operational -- Molinelli is aiming for a launch in the next few weeks -- they would be referred to a program that meets their needs. They would then be under a conditional discharge for up to three years, which would include no more than six months of inpatient drug treatment.

“We are losing an opportunity, because if you are caught with heroin, there is a 99 percent chance that you are addicted to heroin,” he said.

The approach would differ from traditional probation that follows a criminal conviction, since probation violations can lead to violators going to prison. Molinelli said this fails to take into account the fact that those with drug addictions frequently experience multiple relapses before they have lasting success.

Molinelli said the approach is in sync with those outlined by the Christie administration, including the recommendations of the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse’s task force on heroin and opiate use among New Jersey’s young people.

The central Bergen County municipal court Judge Roy F. McGeady would initially oversee the program. But the long-term goal is to have local municipal courts be prepared to handle these cases. Molinelli said Bergen County Superior Court Assignment Judge Peter E. Doyne has expressed interest in asking State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to make Bergen a pilot program that can be replicated statewide.

Molinelli said that an advantage of beginning with a specific group of cases that his office is already familiar with is that it will be able to measure the outcomes.

“I believe there are going to be failures, but we’ll actually have deliverables, we’ll actually be able to measure how well these kids do,” he said.

The close relationship between his office and the Bergen County Department of Health, as well as Children’s Aid and Family Services, has been essential to laying the groundwork for the program. Those two agencies will work to ensure each person is receiving appropriate services, he said.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen and Passaic), who has served as a public defender for Oakland, said she this follow-up is crucial. She noted that she has had multiple clients die from overdoses.

Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office Lt. Dave Borzotta said the county narcotics task force has already shifted its focus from drug dealers to drug users, trying to stem the addiction that fuels the crime. He said that too many residents regard drug users as having lesser worth than their own family members, when anyone can become addicted to prescription pain drugs.

“If Ebola hit Bergen County and we had 40 deaths, there would be some serious response,” Borzotta said. “For some reason, we may feel that these kids or these young adults are really less than (ourselves). They’re really not, they’re really good people. They all have a story and it’s heartbreaking,” with addictions that frequently began with an auto accident or sports injury.

Borzotta said it’s important for every person who uses drugs and is arrested to leave custody with a treatment plan. He hopes to prevent addiction earlier, and has started to speak about the ravages of addiction to audiences that include every ninth-grader in 49 Bergen County high schools.

While there is a bill, A-3828/S-1831, that would allow each county to establish a central municipal drug court, Molinelli suggested that the ultimate statewide approach could mirror Bergen’s goal of allowing local municipal courts to handle these cases.

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