Pubdate: Sun, 07 Jul 2013
Source: Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
Copyright: 2013 Newark Morning Ledger Co
Author: Bill Wichert


SOMERVILLE - When Thomas Blankenship visits with family members, they
no longer hide their purses.

The Bridgewater Township resident spent years cycling in and out of
prison after commiting thefts to feed his heroin addiction. But after
he was arrested for his last burglary, Blankenship turned to the drug
court program in Somerset County.

After more than a year and a half in the program, Blankenship said he
has received treatment, become more responsible and improved relations
with his family.

"Before, my family didn't even want to talk to me, be around me or
nothing like that...Being clean now, it's like, they invite me over
their houses," Blankenship said. "It's a good feeling...knowing that
they trust you."

Now New Jersey officials are looking to place even more drug-addicted
offenders on the road to recovery by mandating their enrollment in
drug court programs.

Non-violent offenders have been able to volunteer for the therapeutic
programs, but starting last week, judges in three vicinages can
sentence certain offenders to drug court on a mandatory basis, whether
they are willing to face their addiction or not.

The change took effect on July 1 in the vicinages of
Somerset/Hunterdon/Warren, Hudson and Ocean. As required under a bill
signed into law last year, three more vicinages are expected to
incorporate mandatory sentences annually until the statewide change is
fully implemented.

With mandated sentences to drug court, the "benefits are great to
society as a whole," said Assignment Judge Yolanda Ciccone of the
Somerset/Hunterdon/Warren vicinage.

"Addicted people going to jail without drug treatment doesn't really
help their addiction," Ciccone said. "We make for a much better
citizen...and a much better rehabilitation if we can help people get
to the point where they've conquered their addiction and learn how to
cope with their addiction."

Instead of going to prison, drug court participants engage in a
rigorous program that includes regular court appearances, drug
treatment, frequent and random drug testing, and intensive supervision
by probation officers.

Offenders typically spend about 3 years in the program, but their
sentences can last up to 5 years, said Carol Venditto, the state's
drug court manager.

The transition to mandated sentences has meant addressing several
challenges, such as monitoring case loads of probation officers and
providing enough time for judges to handle drug court cases at a time
when numerous judicial vacancies remain, Venditto said.

"The number-one challenge obviously is to make sure that we have
sufficient treatment resources to treat the individuals that we take
into our program," Venditto added.

Under the new guidelines, non-violent offenders in those first three
vicinages may be sentenced to drug court if they meet certain
eligibility criteria and are found in a substance abuse evaluation to
be drug dependent, Venditto said.

Some individuals who were identified for mandated sentences already
have volunteered for the program, said Lisa Scheidemann, drug court
coordinator for Somerset/Hunterdon/Warren. Some offenders "recognize
that they need that structure and they need that oversight if they're
going to get clean and stay clean," she said.

Individuals can be sent to jail for violating drug court rules, but
the experience also provides a support system where participants
receive encouragement from the drug court team as well as from each
other, officials said.

During one session in Somerset County last week, the atmosphere was
less formal than in a typical courtroom setting. Standing in the
courtroom, participants updated Drug Court Judge Paul Armstrong about
their recovery efforts, but also discussed the NBA finals and a recent
television show with the judge.

Armstrong congratulated many of them for the progress they've made.
When one participant thanked the team for approving his vacation
plans, Armstrong said: "Well, you earned it."

The group started applauding when one woman shared how she's been
clean for two years. Another woman, Brigitte Budraitis, received
applause when she announced she was pregnant with a girl. "It's
definitely a lot more motivation now," Budraitis told Armstrong.

Before the court session began, Somerville resident Adam Fecso
explained how participating in the drug court program helped give him
an unforgettable experience: seeing his daughter on her first day of
kindergarten last year.

"It was an experience I wouldn't give up," Fecso said. "If I'd been
out there using, I wouldn't have been there."
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