Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina announced on Feb. 12 that the county-sponsored “Operation Helping Hand” program expanded its services into two municipal court systems with potential to reach into other townships.
Coffina said that the municipal court that serves Burlington City and Burlington Township now offers outreach and treatment options being offered to defendants charged for nonviolent offenses related to drug use.
“In partnership with the Burlington Township Police Department, the City of Burlington Police Department, and Solstice Counseling and Wellness Center, the County Prosecutor’s Municipal Court Diversion Initiative (MCDI) seeks to provide intervention to those arrested for drug-related disorderly persons offenses or petty disorderly persons offenses by presenting the opportunity to enter treatment and have their court matter adjourned for a period of time,” Coffina said in a statement.
County officials explained that at the successful conclusion of treatment, a defendant is planned to return to court to face the charges with an aim to go on a path to recovery, so that the municipal prosecutor and municipal judge can consider their progress when determining the appropriate disposition or sentence in the case.
“We will continue to explore different options to provide support and assistance to people struggling with addiction,” Coffina said. “Being arrested puts one at a crossroads, and through the MCDI, we will present the opportunity for a person struggling with substance use to start down the road to recovery. We cannot relent in this effort if we hope to conquer this horrific opioid epidemic, which continues to destroy so many lives.”
The decision from county officials came after Burlington County officials announced that they are taking additional initiatives to expand their efforts to assist drug users. This is the third round of the operation, which launched in May 2019. The operation is a program that offers an increased level of addiction outreach to high-risk substance users in an effort to provide treatment options and support services prior to the occurrence of an overdose.
During May and August last year, officials said recovery specialists responded to calls around the clock from local police officers to offer support and access to treatment to individuals soon after they had been revived with naloxone following an overdose, were arrested or were simply struggling with addiction.
The program is run in partnership with “City of Angels,” a non- profit recovery advocacy organization based in Mercer County. Officials said this program is funded through a $58,824 grant from the United States Department of Health and Human Services that is administered by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General.
The program was pioneered in Bergen County and involved law enforcement officers arresting users purchasing heroin and other narcotics at open-air drug markets. Officials said when users were brought to the police station or prosecutor’s office for processing on narcotics possession charges, recovery specialists and other healthcare partners were waiting to connect them with treatment and recovery services.
“Under the Bergen County model, the charges were not dropped if the user accepted help,” officials said. “However, the Operation Helping Hand grant program allows for each prosecutor’s office to adjust the approach as long as the program involves coordination and collaboration between law enforcement officers, recovery specialists, and mental health professionals to connect those who are struggling with addiction to treatment and recovery support services.”
Coffina emphasized that the MCDI is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” and enrolling in a treatment program is no guarantee that the charges will be dropped or reduced. He explained that the municipal prosecutor and judge will give consideration to program participants who make a “good-faith effort to pursue treatment, participate in counseling and embrace the recovery process.”
The prosecutor also said assessments, referrals to an appropriate treatment program for each participant, and assistance with aftercare will be provided by Solstice.
The MCDI program is focused specifically on defendants charged with nonviolent offenses in municipal court, officials said. Eligible defendants must be referred by a police officer from the Burlington City or Burlington Township police departments, or by the municipal prosecutor who prosecutes cases in the joint municipal court, according to officials.