Researchers from Rutgers University–Newark’s Department of Social Work and School of Criminal Justice recently were awarded a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to start a criminal justice–diversion program aimed at tackling the opioid epidemic in Newark.
The RU-N researchers will collaborate with the Newark Police Dept., the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, and the nonprofit group Newark Community Solutions on a three-year initiative to divert nonviolent, low-level opioid-related offenders away from jail time and toward mental health or substance-abuse treatment, educational opportunities, and job-training.
The researchers will track the outcomes of program participants to gauge its effectiveness at reducing opioid use and addiction, reducing recidivism, and setting those affected on a brighter path than incarceration solutions typically do.
“This is a very different federal approach to drugs than in the 1980s,” says Michael Eversman, an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work and the study’s Principal Investigator (PI). “It’s a treatment and rehab model, rather than a punitive one. It’s focused on harm-reduction, which we hope will have better outcomes than criminal-justice solutions for these low-level, nonviolent offenders.”
As part of the grant, which runs from October 2020 until 2022, the Newark Police Department will screen offenders for eligibility in the program. Arrest subjects with open felony warrants or a history or conviction on sexual assault, murder or arson will be excluded from participation. Records of other types of violent crime may also limit eligibility.
Those deemed eligible will be invited to take part and will work with case managers provided to the Newark Police Department by Newark Community Solutions, who will also collect data on participants as they pursue individually designed treatment and rehab programs as alternatives to incarceration.
This is a very different federal approach to drugs than in the 1980s. It’s a treatment and rehab model, rather than a punitive one.
Researchers from RU-N—which include Eversman, Social Work’s Audrey Redding-Raines (co-PI), and Criminal Justice doctoral student Chase Montagnet (Project Manager)—will evaluate data collected by case managers and the Newark Police Department to understand the array outcomes for participants, and will compare this new information with old police department data to gauge the success of the program over its three-year cycle.
The Essex County Prosecutors Office will then determine if charges made against the low-level offenders are dismissed or reduced.
“Our goal is to assess the impact of this approach, on both the individual and community level, by doing a longitudinal study,” says Eversman. “Has the project had a measurable impact on opioid usage and addiction in Newark compared to criminal justice outcomes before the program was put in place? That’s what we’re looking to find out.”
The DOJ-sponsored funds for the program stem from the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act (CARA), passed by Congress in 2016 under President Barack Obama, to tackle the opioid epidemic nationwide. The first major federal addiction act in 40 years, CARA authorized $181 million to address everything from primary prevention to recovery support, including significant changes to expand access to addiction treatment services and overdose reversal medications. It also includes criminal justice– and law enforcement–related provisions.
Eversman sees this as a crucial first step to reversing years of punitive policy from the U.S.’s War on Drugs.
“We haven’t seen real reductions in drug use and availability with the War on Drugs that started in the 1970s,” says Eversman. “Incarceration has been the main remedy, a ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ approach, which swelled prison populations. Seeing drugs as the public-health problem that it is will hopefully yield far better outcomes for people struggling with addiction.”
Above photo: The Department of Social Work's Audrey Redding-Raines engaging with her class