MAYS LANDING — Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Mark Sandson gave three pieces of advice Tuesday morning to recovery court participants gathered virtually to celebrate their graduation from the program.
“One, be honest with yourselves. Two, defy the negative expectations others may have about you — surprise them. And three, and probably more importantly, never let anyone else define you. You must define yourself. That is the essence of freedom,” Sandson said. “I am proud of all of you. You’ve been honest, you have defied expectations and you have defined yourself as honest and hardworking citizens and members of your family and community.”
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Court staff and family members gathered virtually to celebrate the graduation of 30 participants in the county Superior Court’s recovery court program as the courts are still closed to many in-person hearings amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though they were physically separated, it was an emotional and positive event, with court staff sharing stories about each graduate before speaking about their experiences themselves.
The first student to be recognized was Joshua C., whom Brian Buckberg, a probation officer, introduced as a “model probationary” who fully embraced changing his life and is now working in the recovery field.
Court staff asked The Press of Atlantic City to use only the first initial of the participants’ last names to protect their privacy.
“You guys really gave me the opportunity to change my life,” Joshua said. “I say it all the time: ‘Drug court got me clean, and it keeps me clean.’”
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Recovery court, formerly known as drug court, is a four-phase program that allows nonviolent offenders struggling with addiction to complete intensive drug and alcohol treatment, gain employment, obtain education and pay court fines. If they complete the program, their records will be expunged.
A graduation was held virtually last week for the 49 graduates from Cape May County’s program.
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“During these trying times, the current graduates had to persevere without the typical level of personal support and camaraderie, making their accomplishment all that more impressive,” Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland said. “I am confident that if they could overcome their substance use disorder under the current circumstances, they can achieve all of their future objectives and goals.”
There are about 1,000 participants in the two counties’ recovery courts, making it one of the largest in New Jersey, Sandson said.
During Tuesday’s graduation, Assignment Judge Julio Mendez, who oversaw the court’s name change, called it the “gold standard” for recovery programs in the state.
“That’s a wonderful accomplishment — a reflection of the hard work of every single one of those individuals, a commitment to change, indeed, a commitment to save their lives,” Mendez said. “We have one of the largest programs in the state, which is a reflection of the quality of our program and the aggressiveness of our program in terms of getting people to participate. But, sadly, it’s also a reflection of the significant issues with addiction that we have in our community as well.”
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Also during the ceremony, officials unveiled a portrait of retired Superior Court Judge Michael Connor, who served as the county’s first drug court judge. The portrait now hangs in Courtroom 1, the courtroom he used.
Connor said it was “an honor” to address graduates, recalling how when he was training in Philadelphia to bring the program to South Jersey, he picked up a fortune cookie during lunch that said, “Make the choice while you have the chance.”
“You folks had the chance; you made the choice,” he said. “And you have an opportunity to continue to make that choice one day at a time to maintain your recovery. So I would like to encourage you to continue to do that.”
Sandson also spent a portion of the graduation recognizing Jason B., a participant in the program who died from his addiction May 13, he said.
Alison Gee, a probation officer who supervised Jason during parts of the program, said Jason had become a business owner and recently offered law enforcement and first responders free oil changes during the pandemic.
“Jason was more than just a participant in the recovery court program,” Gee said, adding he was a father of two with twins on the way. “Unfortunately, the disease of addiction does not discriminate, and it can and will take a life, anyone’s life, in an instant.”
After each participant was recognized, Sandson lauded them for getting through the program through the pandemic and urged them to help others.
“You have to give back,” he said. “One of the things that you learn in recovery is there’s a lot of people out there that are hurting and that have not made the same journey you have or started the journey and stopped. An important part of your obligation as someone in recovery is to help other people that are in recovery.”
To learn more about recovery court, visit njcourts.gov.