CAMDEN, N.J. - When Richard F. Gibboni Sr. went to drug court in Camden County five years ago, he was given a choice: Remain in prison for possession of heroin and violating probation or go to a treatment center and participate in the drug court program.
That would mean nine months of inpatient treatment followed by at least a year of weekly testing to ensure that he remained drug-free, meeting periodically with the judge and probation officers, continuing to attend outpatient treatment groups and agreeing to rules like obeying curfews and completing writing assignments.
"In 20 years of practicing law, this is the first new thing I've seen under the sun," said Judge Katherine Dupuis, who has been on the bench in Union County's drug court for two years. "It's really allowing people to reclaim their lives. It's amazing to watch people turn around."
Today, Gibboni, 55, runs an automobile repair shop in Voorhees with his son and his father. He also heads the Camden County Drug Court Alumni group - a success story that has encouraged judges, lawyers, legislators and providers of drug treatment programs to support Camden County's drug court, a model for the state.
By mid-2003, every court in the state will have a similar program in which defendants will be offered treatment and strict monitoring in place of jail if their offense is nonviolent - but the threat of prison remains.
Began in Miami
Drug court, which began in Miami in 1989, has spread to all 50 states, said Susan Weinstein, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. There are more than 700 such courts, she said, with about 500 more planned.
So far, the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, a privately financed organization representing 5,000 member groups that work to keep communities drug-free, views the drug courts with optimism.
"We have a long history of supporting this movement," said Betsy Glick, vice president of communications for the coalition. "If you just send someone to jail and don't treat their problem, they will be back in jail. It's still a crime and we acknowledge that, but we want to get people treatment."
And that treatment needs to be court-ordered "with the threat of jail," she said, so that people will take it seriously.
The notion of drug court made its way to New Jersey in 1996 in Camden and Essex counties as a pilot program, with some financing coming from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In 1997 and 1998, Passaic, Mercer and Union counties joined, and last year the Legislature approved funds for each of the state's 15 jurisdictions. The remaining regions - Hudson, Middlesex, Atlantic/Cape May, Burlington and Somerset/Hunterdon/Warren - will begin next July.
So far, 2,000 defendants have passed through the state's drug court system, with about 540 returning to prison because they violated the terms of the agreement, said Carol Venditto, the drug court manager for the state. About 100 people have completed all phases of the program, Venditto added, and the rest are still involved to some extent.
'Prison not helping'
"Prison was not helping them, and parole was not helping them enough," said Venditto. "It wasn't making an impact. This gives them intense supervision. We are holding them accountable."
Officials in Camden County turned to drug court out of frustration, said Gabe Guerrieri, executive director of Genesis Counseling Center in Collingwood, who sat on a panel of judges, lawyers and treatment providers and came up with the model.
Guerrieri, who is now a treatment provider, also appealed to the Robert Wood Johnson Center and the Camden County freeholders for financing. "We realized we could no longer incarcerate the problem away," he said. "Everyone saw we were going nowhere."
These days, the Camden County Improvement Authority is helping the program by finding jobs for recovering drug addicts and helping to monitor their terms of probation.
"Addicts need structure," said Edwina Milsted, Camden County's principal probation officer since 1996. "Certainly people fail at this, but first and foremost it's because they're not ready yet. I've never seen positive things happen for people until we started drug court."
On Mondays and Tuesdays, when the drug court convenes before Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Brown, the atmosphere is a mixture of revival meeting and courthouse drama. One minute a "client," as Brown calls a defendant, may be testifying about how he has changed his life and is ready for fewer meetings with the judge and probation officer. But the next moment, Brown may be telling the person he is ready to return him to prison if he does not get a job quickly.
When court convenes, the judge is facing about 50 defendants as well as a dozen treatment providers and probation officers.
Brown addresses the crowd like a father at times, telling the group - three-quarters of whom are men - to "make sure you're not on any of these corners" where drugs are being sold and to "make sure you're not late for urine tests, because one of these times sanctions will be imposed."
He expresses condolences to a defendant whose 5-year-old son has died and warmly greets Elvin Ortiz, a 25-year-old Pennsauken man, who has been off drugs for more than three years, has a job and will graduate from the program in February 2004.
'A historic moment'
When one man who has been in the program since August 2000 gets up to tell of his progress, the judge says: "This is a historic moment. I want quiet, silence."
The man tells how he has held a job for more than a year while attending meetings and paying his fines. When another client asks about his inspiration, the man replies: "I saw young kids dying of drugs and alcohol, but God gave me another chance and drug court gave me a chance. I owe this to Judge Brown and Miss Ever Lee."
Miss Ever Lee is Ever Lee Hairston, a supervisor at the Camden County Step-Up Program, a treatment provider. She sits in the jury box as clients ask to have their restrictions eased or to report to the judge that they are doing well.
If a client has failed to get a job, Brown - a former federal prosecutor who grew up five blocks from the courthouse - loses his congenial tone.
"I'm not getting this," he says to a man who has not found a steady job. "I must be missing something. Why is this so difficult? This constant state of instability distracts from your recovery. You look like the Dow Jones, going up and down and up and down.
"Go to work and keep your mouth shut and do what you're supposed to be doing," the 54-year-old judge says. "You better keep this job. I'm ordering you to keep this job."
With an 18-year-old man who is struggling, the judge tells him he will keep him at the treatment center if he works hard and reminds him that "the alternative for you is state prison." Then, he lets the man hug his sister and his niece.
"It's amazing what we know about a client's life," said Scott D. Decicco, a drug court coordinator. "This is a very different type of a program. Our probation officers are out in the field. They might be out in Camden City at night seeing clients. We monitor very closely. We're trying to get them reconnected to society."
Gibboni - who says he has not used drugs since going to Faith Farm in Bridgeton in 1997 - sees himself as someone who would not have been able to return to society without the court's stringent structure.
"You go in front of the judge all the time and the providers are there too," he said. "The authority figure doesn't take any lip. We need someone to keep an eye on us."