PASSAIC COUNTYCrime hasn’t stopped during the coronavirus outbreak and neither have the law enforcement officers trying to fight it. “It’s been a time,” said Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes. “We had an election, COVID, protests and shooting sprees.”

And in the midst of that, many continue to struggle with addiction and concerns are on the rise that now, six months into the pandemic, more people could be pushed towards substance abuse.

"We watch trends statewide and take a look at what’s happening. Violence and substance abuse have been exacerbated by COVID,” Valdes said. “All major cities have had upticks in crime, especially shooting crimes. People are frustrated, uncertain and unsure of how to cope with problems they may be having. They are under a lot of stress. Job loss, social isolation and stress caused by COVID-19 have been difficult for everyone, but for someone with an addiction or in recovery, it could be too much to handle, Valdes said.

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New Jersey, like many states across the country, has seen a spike in fatal opioid overdoses this year.

In Passaic County, there have already been 106 suspected overdose deaths, data collected by NJ Cares, the state’s coordinated opioid response effort, shows. In 2019, 171 deaths were reported for the entire year, according to data collected by the state.

Statewide that data is even more staggering with 1,595 suspected fatal overdoses through June 30, a 17% increase when compared to the same period in 2019.

“The pandemic is something impacting all of us. All of our lives have been disrupted,” Valdes said. “The stresses and uncertainty could trigger people to search for ways to cope that could include drugs or alcohol. We want to make sure we communicate to the public that we’re all in this together.”

Despite the challenging times, Valdes said her office remains “committed to making sure people are connected to treatment and services.”

As part of that mission, the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office recently ran a week-long operation aimed at linking low-level drug offenders with the opportunity to get help.  

During the operation, which ran from July 13 to 17, authorities focused their attention on Paterson’s open-air drug market, which regularly draws buyers spanning from South Jersey to Pennsylvania to New York, Valdes said.

“Paterson is different from other cities. The quality of the heroin is different there and Paterson is in close proximity to New York City – you could be in Washington Heights in 25 to 30 minutes. It’s also smaller and easier to navigate. It’s easy to get in, do your thing and get out onto Route 21 or 80,” she said.

Of the 37 individuals arrested during Operation Helping Hand, 89% (33 people) accepted substance abuse treatment and made arrangements to begin outpatient treatment at a later date or were transported directly to a treatment facility by a law enforcement officer. 

Each person arrested during the initiative was privately screened by a peer recovery specialist from the Morris County Center for Addiction Recovery, Education and Success (CARES) in an effort to connect them with treatment and recovery services.

“The fact that we are working in partnership and collaboration with peer recovery specialists and substance abuse counselors/providers is a more compassionate approach than putting someone in jail,” Valdes said. “In jail, they can’t use, which is largely true, but the underlying issues are still there.”

“This process turns law enforcement encounters into an opportunity for individuals to turn their lives around and help break the cycle of addiction by connecting each individual with vital treatment, recovery and support services,” she said.

And while those who are arrested are still held accountable for their offenses, Valdes said, the courts are made aware of the individual’s willingness to enter treatment and it becomes “more of a sentencing consideration.”


A Hand Up, Not Handcuffs

Launched in 2016 by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal while he was serving as Bergen County Prosecutor, Operation Helping Hand provides an alternative to immediate incarceration and offers substance abuse treatment. 

Grewal has described Operation Helping Hand as “a different kind of policing” that revolves around a goal of offering help to individuals using drugs to help them “break the cycle of addiction” instead of “racking up arrests.”

In June 2018, law enforcement, county government, and addiction service agencies in Bergen, Morris, Passaic, Sussex, and Union counties first ran Operation Helping Hand, which resulted in more than 150 people agreeing to pursue treatment or recovery support services.

In Passaic County, 56 people were arrested and 42 accepted treatment or made arrangements to pursue it, Valdes said. “The state has really encouraged prosecutors to participate in the initiative. This was our second operation,” she said. “It’s really a week-long program where we focus our attention on ushering people into treatment.”

Operation Helping Hand has since expanded across the state as part of a strategy by Grewal and Gov. Phil Murphy to combat the opioid epidemic.

Through the use of $2.2 million in federal and state funding, the program was rolled out to 17 counties in September 2018 and to all 21 counties by the following year. 

“Now that Attorney General Grewal has achieved his goal of expanding the Operation Helping Hand program to all 21 counties in New Jersey, the AG’s Office hopes the program will serve as a model for other states across the country,” a spokesperson for the state Attorney General’s Office said. “Operation Helping Hand has been recognized at national symposiums as an innovative approach to addressing the opioid crisis and has drawn the interest of law enforcement, social services organizations, community leaders and faith-based groups outside of New Jersey who have expressed interest in learning more about it.”


Armed With Tools for Success

Initiatives like Operation Helping Hand are “innovative,” in that they “recognize the importance of treatment as the primary avenue to sobriety,” Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey said.

As head of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a non-profit organization that provides job training, counseling and other services to men and women released from prison, McGreevey said he knows how challenging it can be to return to society.

Being released from prison “can be a difficult situation,” he said.  “They have no job, no license, no home, fines, and court fees. It can become a dangerous time for an addict without sufficient support.”

That’s why it’s critical to arm them with the tools that will help set them up for success as they navigate the transition from jail to civil society once they have completed their sentence.

People who have recently returned from prison are 129 more times likely to die of an overdose within their first two weeks of release, McGreevey pointed out. Faced with the stress of their release, they may – as a coping mechanism – return to using and will return to doing the same amount they did prior to jail, which can be fatal, he said.

“Our goal is to help create a system that pulls these persons into a healthier, more productive lifestyle and away from the chaos of addiction and crime,” he said. “We support returning persons so they can make good healthy decisions.”

“We all make mistakes in life and we have all made mistakes in judgement,” he said. “We all don’t start the race from the same spot, either. It is about understanding human error and fortune of birth as Americans, and hopefully, a shared sense of responsibility to the community and that the people we work with are among the most vulnerable, marginalized and broken people.”


From the City to the Suburbs

Since taking the helm of the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office 11 years ago, Valdes said there has been “a shift” in the way all law enforcement deals with “people who are addicted and commit crimes.”

The opioid epidemic “is not just a city issue,” but one that spills beyond the urban areas and into suburbs. “People are traveling to Paterson from New York, Pennsylvania, Essex, Sussex, Bergen and Ocean counties. That’s where we know people are going to get the drugs,” Valdes said.

“At first people didn’t want to acknowledge it was happening and that it impacted the surrounding communities. But when it started happening in families and communities you never thought it would happen, there was a change in the mentality regarding services versus incarceration,” she said.

“We can’t arrest our problems away,” she said. “Anxiety causes people to engage in behavior that’s sometimes criminal and begs of needing assistance beyond just arresting them.”

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