Taking a page from its own book at the Superior Court level, New Jersey is testing a diversion program in select municipal courts to assist non-violent offenders with substance abuse issues.

Attorney General Matthew Platkin and Kelly Levy, acting director of the Office of the New Jersey Coordinator for Addiction Responses and Enforcement Strategies, announced on Tuesday the launch of the program Opt for Help and Hope.

The program aims to offer early intervention for defendants whose offenses are non-violent, and minimize the impact that arrests and convictions can have on one's chances at recovery.

According to officials, Opt for Help and Hope is the first statewide initiative focused on offering this support to municipal court defendants.

New Jersey's Recovery Court Program (formerly known as Drug Court) assists defendants in Superior Court, which generally handles serious criminal charges.

"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," Platkin said. "I am confident that this initiative will positively impact our fight in breaking the vicious cycle of crime and addiction."

The test run will launch in six sites:

  • Central Municipal Court of Atlantic County
  • Pemberton Municipal Court
  • East Orange Municipal Court
  • Hamilton Township Municipal Court
  • Paterson City Municipal Court
  • Franklin Township Municipal Court

Potential participants will be screened by a program that's set up by each participating county prosecutor's office, according to the Attorney General's Office. If an individual is showing engagement in the recovery process, a prosecutor may move to dismiss or downgrade their charges. If a person declines participation in the program, they can still connect with the services but wouldn't be eligible for a lighter penalty, the office said.

"For many, the first entry point into the criminal justice system occurs at the municipal court level," said Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes. "Therefore, it is imperative for all stakeholders to participate sooner rather than later in the restorative process."

The program could be expanded to additional locations at a later date, according to the Attorney General's Office.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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