STATE — Khara Murphy had reached a fork in the road.
Facing five years in prison for crimes she committed to finance her drug habit, Murphy decided instead to apply for admission into the New Jersey Judiciary’s rigorous drug court program.
It was a decision that saved her life, she said.
“It gave me a structure I so desperately needed,” Murphy, 27, who lives in Deptford, Gloucester County, said of drug court. “My days before drug court revolved around getting high. It’s all I knew how to do. Drug court gave me an opportunity to turn my life around.”
Murphy is one of the many success stories of New Jersey’s drug court, a highly specialized team process within the existing Superior Court structure that addresses nonviolent, drug-related cases.
The Judiciary has issued a report, A Model for Success A Report on New Jersey’s Adult Drug Courts, which details many of the program’s successes.
“Drug courts have increased exponentially across the country because communities have recognized that court-based treatment interventions for drug-involved offenders can be an effective tool with regard to some of the substance abusers who come in contact with our criminal justice system,” said Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrator of the courts who also served as a family drug court judge in Essex County. “Drug courts are a reflection of the changing needs of the public to provide nonviolent offenders with the help they need to quit drugs permanently rather then sending them to prison and putting them at risk to commit more crimes when they are released.”
Drug courts are unique in the criminal justice environment because they build a close, collaborative relationship between criminal justice and drug treatment professionals.
Drug courts target offenders who, were it not for their substance abuse, might never have been involved with the court system.
Drug courts have transformed the lives of thousands of drug-addicted offenders by providing them with treatment rather than incarceration, intensive supervision and incentives to remake their lives.
Drug courts have enhanced public safety in New Jersey. Data show that an offender who goes through drug court is far less likely to offend again than one who goes to prison.
And drug courts have saved New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars because it is less expensive to keep a person in drug court than in prison.
Drug courts began in New Jersey in 1996 when Camden and Essex counties started accepting participants. Drug courts were in operation in all 21 counties in September 2004.
Drug court programs are rigorous, requiring completion of four phases during five years of intensive drug and alcohol treatment and testing, and a tightly structured regimen of treatment and recovery services.
This level of supervision permits the program to support the recovery process, but also allows the court to react swiftly to impose appropriate therapeutic sanctions or to reinstate criminal proceedings when participants do not comply with the program.
For Paula Raspantini, the decision to enter drug court instead of going to prison was the culmination of a decades-long downward spiral that began with drug experimentation when she was 11 and led to the loss of a well-paying job, and homelessness.
She sold heroin to support her drug habit, she said.
Raspantini was arrested on drug charges in September 2004. She said she decided to apply for admission to drug court while waiting trial in the Passaic County Jail and facing a possible 10-year prison sentence if convicted.
“This was the first time, since I was 11, that my body wasn’t on drugs,” said Raspantini, 46, of Passaic. I decided I had a drug problem.”
Raspantini graduated from the Passaic County drug court program in July 2009. She works at Straight & Narrow, a non-profit organization that provides services for substance abusers and others. She lectures clients, monitors treatment and performs other tasks as part of the Passaic County Intoxicated Driving Resource Center while studying at Passaic County Community College to become a counselor.
“It gave me my life,” Raspantini said of drug court. “I’m living a productive life without the use of drugs or alcohol. I could never do that before.”
From April 1, 2002, when drug courts became fully funded by the state, until June 30, 2010, the state’s adult drug courts enrolled 9,037 participants, according to A Model for Success A Report on New Jersey’s Adult Drug Courts.
A total of 31 percent of graduates were employed when they entered drug court, and more than 87 percent were employed at the time of graduation, the report says. A total of 26 percent of drug court graduates improved their level of education or employment skills while participating in the drug court program.
In addition, 186 babies have been born drug-free to female participants, and 104 participants regained custody of their minor children due to their participation in the program, according to the report.
Murphy said she began smoking marijuana when she was about 13 years old. She began taking Ecstasy when she was in high school and progressed to painkillers and heroin.
She was 22 when she was arrested in 2005 for drug possession, burglarizing a house and stealing her mother’s vehicle, she said.
“When you’re addicted and you’re not working, you steal to get high,” Murphy said. “Nothing else matters.”
Murphy and was given a choice: spend five years in prison or enroll in drug court. She was sentenced to drug court in June 2006.
A short time later, she learned she was pregnant.
“I realized I wouldn’t just be hurting myself, I would be hurting someone else,” Murphy said of the decision to end her drug use.
Murphy, who graduated from drug court in June 2009, is studying psychology at Camden County College. Her daughter will be four in December.
“I feel great and I’m happy,” Murphy said. “I learned some things some people don’t get to learn their entire lives. I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do.”
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