MAYS LANDING — Court officials in other parts of the state still refer to it as “drug court,” but for Judge Mark Sandson and the Atlantic and Cape May county courts, it’s all about recovery.

“It takes a lot of dedication to graduate because you have to change,” Sandson said. “Change is one of the most difficult things to do.”

The local vicinage held back-to-back graduation ceremonies this week for 143 drug court participants, the largest class ever to graduate in the program’s history.

“Live life all the way through. Don’t just say no, say ‘Hell no!’” one man told his fellow graduates Tuesday. The Press was prohibited from naming the people who complete the program.

The four-phase program run through the state judiciary allows nonviolent offenders struggling with addiction to complete intensive drug and alcohol treatment, gain employment, obtain education and pay court fines. If participants complete the program, they will have their records expunged.

Sandson said he had signed more than 60 expungements Monday. All of the remaining graduates will also have their records expunged.

As the red velvet curtains lifted Tuesday afternoon, a resounding applause filled the auditorium inside the Atlantic County Institute of Technology. Smiles washed over the faces of the 73 graduates from Atlantic County seated on stage. On Wednesday, the remaining graduates from Cape May County will also move on from the program.

“The war against drug addiction has begun,” Sandson said, and employment is a weapon in that war. “What you’re seeing before you is 73 employed people.”

Keynote speaker New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said he has strong ties to Atlantic County and an affinity for the drug court program. Asaro-Angelo told the graduates he had a drug charge when he was younger and paid $1,000 for an expungement, but still had to move out of state to find employment.

Now, the state is developing workforce training programs to help drug court graduates find employment, including one in Atlantic City. He said 38 graduates have completed the program.

“For these trainees, a second chance to achieve the victory of work brought smiles and in many cases tears of joy and gratitude,” Asaro-Angelo said. “We know that people are more likely to remain in recovery if they believe they can find success in the workplace.”

Sandson said that with the casino industry being such a huge part of the local economy, expungement is one of the most important components of the recovery court program because convictions are a barrier to obtaining a casino license.

During the program, Sandson and Assignment Judge Julio Mendez also recognized Stockton University as its 2019 Atlantic County Partner of the Year. On Wednesday, the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office will receive the same honor during the southern county’s graduation program.

“The tremendous work of the Atlantic County Recovery Court is more than commendable,” said Stockton President Harvey Kesselman. “It’s a testament to the power of hope.”

Other guest speakers included Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner and Deputy Public Defender Scott Sherwood.

One of the graduates, who was honored with the class MVP award Tuesday, said he was resistant to the drug court program at first, but finally he surrendered.

“My bottom was actually my mom and my sister,” he said, adding he could see the pain and suffering in their faces. “I was killing her.”

During his road to recovery, he went to jail, to treatment and to a halfway house.

“Everything was set in place for a reason,” the graduate said. “It helped me get where I am today. I’m over three years clean right now.”

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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