Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and the Office of the New Jersey Coordinator for Addiction Responses and Enforcement Strategies (NJ CARES) announced on Thursday that $2.2 million in state funds would be dedicated to establishing and expanding county-based diversion programs in which law enforcement officers proactively connect individuals suffering from opioid addiction with treatment and/or recovery support services.
Drawn from the $100 million the Murphy Administration committed to combatting the opioid epidemic in Fiscal Year 2019, the funding will facilitate the statewide expansion of the “Operation Helping Hand” law enforcement diversion program.
“Law enforcement diversion programs are an important part of the State’s addiction response to the opioid addiction epidemic,” said Gov. Phil Murphy in a statement. “With this funding for Operation Helping Hand, we are doubling down on a program that has demonstrated positive results across the state.”
Under the program, $2.1 million of the state funding will be disbursed to counties and the remainder will be used to administer the program through NJ CARES. The base funding allocation for each county prosecutor’s office is $100,000. If not all counties participate, the remainder of the $2.1 million will be divided among participating counties using a formula determined by NJ CARES.
The funding is for a 12-month period from September 1, 2019, through August 31, 2020.
According to Grewal, the Operation Helping Hand model, which has been deployed in 18 counties to date, has been credited with linking hundreds of individuals with services to address drug addiction.
“Our goal is to expand Operation Helping Hand into all 21 counties to promote the kind of community partnerships that turn law enforcement encounters into an opportunity for individuals to turn their lives around,” said Grewal. “Operation Helping Hand represents a different kind of policing, where the goal is not to rack up arrests but to offer individuals using illicit drugs the help they need to break the cycle of addiction,” he added.
Bergen County beginnings
Grewal developed Operation Helping Hand as a new way to combat opioid addiction in Bergen County while serving as the county prosecutor in 2016. At that time, the Operation Helping Hand strategy began with law enforcement officers arresting users purchasing heroin – or, in some cases, other narcotics – at open-air drug markets.
When the users were brought to the police station or prosecutor’s office for processing on narcotics possession charges, recovery specialists and other health care partners were waiting to connect them with treatment and recovery services. The charges were not dropped if the user accepted help, but every effort was made to place him or her on the path to recovery. Operation Helping Hand has been steadily expanding to more counties since 2018 as part of Murphy and Grewal’s all-hands-on-deck strategy for combatting the opioid epidemic.
In June 2018, a week-long Operation Helping Hand initiative involving law enforcement, county government, and addiction service agencies in Bergen, Morris, Passaic, Sussex, and Union counties demonstrated the program’s success when more than 150 individuals encountered by law enforcement officers chose to pursue treatment – meaning in-patient detox or treatment, or intensive outpatient treatment, or medically assisted treatment, or a combination thereof – or recovery support services.
Last fall NJ CARES used $1 million in federal funds, which were subgranted from the New Jersey Department of Health, to provide grants to county prosecutors’ offices to establish or expand programs modeled on Operation Helping Hand.
Counties are given the flexibility to adapt the Operation Helping Hand strategy to meet local needs, as long as their programs rely on relationships with community health care partners and incorporate proactive outreach by law enforcement officers to serve as a point of entry for treatment and/or recovery support services.
The $1 million in federal funding announced last fall is expected to pay for programs in 17 counties – Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Salem, Sussex, Union and Warren – through August. The new funding announced Thursday will allow existing programs to continue and grow, while giving the remaining counties the opportunity to participate.
Early feedback on the new Operation Helping Hand programs has been positive.
For example, Camden County used the grant funding to launch a traditional Operation Helping Hand program, the county’s first. During the week-long operation, 126 individuals were arrested for minor drug-related offenses and those with substance use disorders were offered a variety of treatment programs and recovery support services.
Of the 126 individuals that law enforcement made contact with, 17 entered into inpatient detox treatment, 25 entered intensive outpatient or community-based support program, and seven entered into medically assisted treatment.
“We believe that counties who have seen first-hand the successes of the Operation Helping Hand model will be eager to apply for additional funding to expand them and keep them running for another year,” said Sharon Joyce, director of NJ CARES. “We intend to reach out to work counties that didn’t apply for the last round of funding and discuss ways the funding could be used to address the problem of drug addiction in their communities.”