Instead of going to prison on drug charges, Caitlin completed a rigorous program that required daily calls to her probation officer, weekly group meetings, an early evening curfew, and eventually forced her to earn her GED and get a job. She had to submit to random drug testing, weekly court appointments and wearing an ankle bracelet.
But as she recounted her journey that led to her being drug-free for three years, she credited the Drug Court program under the supervision of Judge Stuart Minkowitz, who oversees the Morris/Sussex Vicinage, for giving her a second chance.
“Drug Court opened up a million doors,” she told an audience at Rutgers Law School in early October. “I got all of my charges expunged.”
Minkowitz and U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas '94 talked about programs for drug offenders that are alternatives to incarceration at the law school’s 34th annual Chief Justice Joseph Weintraub Lecture, which was sponsored by the Rutgers School of Law- Alumni Association of Newark.
Minkowitz explained that the Drug Court program, started in 2002, requires a support team of probation officers, substance abuse treatment providers, mental health counselors, and others to help the clients stay clean and sober. He said there are 440 people taking part in the program, which boasts only a 7 percent recidivism rate after five years.
“It’s in the public’s interest that people who come into the Drug Court Program don’t come back to the criminal justice system,” he said.
Salas talked about the three-year-old Pretrial Opportunity Program (POP), which allows certain federal offenders with narcotics-abuse profiles, to take part in a comprehensive rehabilitation program instead of initially serving prison time. In POP, clients report to federal court and check in frequently with federal probation officers. Salas said the clients undergo assessments to see if they need housing, mental health services, a job or other assistance.
Clients must demonstrate they are committed to their sobriety and undergo educational and vocational training, and some are required to wear electronic monitoring devices. “It’s an intense outpatient program,” said Salas. “It’s not soft on crime or giving people a walk.”
One of the participants, John, said he was “paralyzed with fear” when he started the pre-trial program, but now works at a treatment facility and still gets support from his probation officer, who he described as “compassionate.” Salas said participants are not guaranteed they won’t end up going to prison, “There are no promises.”
Minkowitz said graduates of Drug Court become mentors to other participants and are also required to pay outstanding debts, including back child support, court costs, taxes and fines. All members are required to do “outreach program and prevention,” which may mean speaking at high schools. “They pay it forward,” said the judge.
Not all of the clients’ stories have happy endings. Both judges admit that participants have overdosed and lost their lives. “It’s a disease and sometimes the disease wins,”Minkowitz said.
Salas also asked the attorneys attending the event to consider helping their clients with matters that range from immigration to child support issues.
The Chief Justice Joseph Weintraub Lecture Series was established by the Rutgers School of Law-Newark Alumni Association in honor of the late Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.