In a major announcement made on Tuesday, Monmouth County Prosecutor Raymond S. Santiago revealed that nearly one in every five residents in Monmouth County will soon have access to a groundbreaking program that aims to support individuals grappling with substance abuse and mental health disorders. The MCPO Recovery Diversion Program (RDP), initially launched as a pilot initiative in Long Branch in 2021, has since expanded its reach to Asbury Park and Red Bank this year, with Howell Township and Keansburg set to join the program by the end of October.
The success of the pilot program in Long Branch paved the way for its county-wide expansion, with Prosecutor Santiago expressing his excitement at overseeing this crucial endeavor. Participants of the RDP have consistently shared their amazement at the comprehensive support they receive when they visit Municipal Court for minor criminal offenses. A dedicated team of professionals awaits them, ready to assist in rebuilding their lives.
The RDP operates on a straightforward framework. Initially, defendants charged with non-violent, low-level crimes and who have substance use or mental health disorders are offered the opportunity to participate by a Municipal Prosecutor. If interested, the candidate attends a preliminary RDP session, where they meet a recovery specialist from Hope Sheds Light, a nonprofit organization focusing on rehabilitation in Monmouth and Ocean counties. The recovery specialist introduces the program and connects the candidate with a clinician from CPC Behavioral Healthcare or New Hope Integrated Behavioral Health Care, who conducts a mental health evaluation and schedules an intake appointment. Upon completion of the appointment, the participant commences treatment at the recommended level, with program durations ranging from 12 weeks to six months.
Under the supervision of RDP Coordinator and Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor Lindsay Ashwal, the 10-person RDP team receives monthly compliance reports for each participant. To be eligible for dismissal of charges, participants must complete all recommended treatment, maintain contact with Hope Sheds Light, and avoid re-arrest. The Municipal Prosecutor then seeks dismissal before the Municipal Court Judge, who exercises discretion in making the final decision.
Upon graduating from the program, candidates are encouraged to invite family and friends to a celebratory graduation ceremony. Asbury Park recently hosted its first such ceremony on September 1st, coinciding with National Recovery Month. These unique ceremonies are markedly different from typical court hearings, as they emphasize celebration rather than formal procedures. They are filled with laughter, tears, and numerous rounds of applause. The inaugural RDP graduate in Asbury Park received heartfelt congratulations from Municipal Prosecutor James “Jimmy” Butler and County Prosecutor Santiago, highlighting the impact the program has had on their lives. Their sincere support illustrates the transformative nature of the RDP.
Hailing the program’s introduction as a triumph, Asbury Park Mayor John B. Moor expressed gratitude to the City Council and Municipal Court staff for their instrumental support. Asbury Park Municipal Court Administrator Joanne Pilliod described the RDP as an incredible opportunity for all involved. The program’s funding has been made possible through an Operation Helping Hand grant administered by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General (OAG), with the New Jersey Reentry Corporation serving as an additional partner organization, facilitating participants’ access to education, job training, and placement. Local police departments, elected officials, and municipal court administrators, judges, public defenders, and prosecutors also play vital roles in the RDP’s implementation.
Prosecutor Santiago acknowledged the immense collaborative effort required for each municipality’s participation in the RDP. Once its benefits and cost-free nature are comprehensively presented, municipal governments are receptive to adopting the program. The dedication of Santiago, Ashwal, and other program advocates is evident in their engagements with various organizations and institutions, including the OAG Advocacy Institute, New Jersey State Bar Association, Monmouth County Bar Association’s Municipal Court Committee, and Monmouth County Court Administrators Association.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 46 million Americans meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, with only 6% receiving treatment. Additionally, approximately one in four American adults experienced mental illness symptoms in the past year. Shockingly, drug overdoses have claimed over one million American lives in the 21st century, with nearly 110,000 fatalities recorded last year alone. Over the course of a decade, Monmouth County witnessed around 1,500 overdose-related deaths from 2012 to 2021.
Prosecutor Santiago highlighted the menace of substance abuse and mental illness as the paramount public-health challenge of our era. Programs like the RDP, which directly connect individuals in crisis to vital social services, are essential components of the path to victory.
For more information about the Recovery Diversion Program, interested individuals can visit the Red Bank Long Branch Recovery Diversion Program Graduation website.