Passaic NJ recovery court graduates celebrate escape from addiction

PATERSON — After losing custody of her daughter and spending three years in prison, Jennifer Pacifico said, she finally quit drugs through the help of Passaic County’s recovery court program.

“I finally said to myself, ‘I’m getting too old to keep on going on this way,’ ” Pacifico, 46, said last week.

Pacifico was one of 40 people who celebrated their graduation from the recovery court program in a ceremony at the auditorium of Passaic County Community College. The ceremony started with the traditional commencement march of “Pomp and Circumstance,” though these graduates had overcome far more than the ordinary.

Pacifico and the others received their graduation certificates and spoke to the audience of family members and friends about the demons and difficulties they overcame in fighting their addictions.

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Miguel de la Carrera, who oversees the program, spoke during the event and noted that the initiative had been called “drug court” for three decades before being renamed the recovery court.

“The name was changed because this is about recovery, not drugs,” de la Carrera told the audience.

During the past 30 years, about 4,000 recovery courts in the US have helped about 1.5 million people get their lives on track, the judge said.

“Recovery courts address substance abuse, reduce addiction, improve education, reunite families and help provide housing for those who participate,” de la Carrera told the crowd. “We seek to combat the stigma that is often attached to a marginalized population.”

Geared toward nonviolent drug-related cases, the program typically lasts five years and requires participants to complete four phases of substance abuse treatment. Those who fail to comply with the program’s requirements face either therapeutic interventions or the reinstatement of their criminal charges.

“This proactive approach consists of treatment, counseling and other resources intended to assist participants with issues such as job training, education and health care,” the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender explains on its website.

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The effort grew from a realization that the “seemingly intractable cycle of incarceration followed by more incarceration was not producing a solution to drug-related criminal behavior and instead was just endlessly filling jail and prison cells,” the website says.

Recovery court administrator Adrien Byrd and Superior Court Judge Sohail Mohammed, who presides over criminal courts in Passaic County, praised the graduates for completing the rigorous program.

Pacifico said that through the court initiative she started attending 12-step meetings. The road to recovery was difficult but well worth the effort, she said. Being drug-free has opened exciting horizons in her life, she added.

Pacifico said she now lives with her youngest daughter, 8-year-old Amiera, and often spends time with the daughter whom authorities took away during her addiction: Amiya, who is now 20.

“I have such a sense of relief,” Pacifico said. “Amiya and I go shopping or go out to eat together quite often. She can call me ‘Mom’ again. She is no longer embarrassed to be with me. She is very proud of me that I didn’t give up.”

Another recovery court graduate, 40-year-old James Chinnici, said he passed through the program in 2½ years.

“Some people take five years to graduate,” Chinnici said. “But I didn’t make any mistakes. All my fines are paid. I no longer have problems due to having prior sentences.”

During his speech, Chinnici paid special tribute to his mother, Debbie, who said he has always supported him.

Joseph Zonca told the audience how he moved from being incarcerated to owning a landscaping business due to the help and direction he received from recovery court.

“It’s been years since I walked through the doors and did a long stint at the Passaic County Jail,” Zonca said. “It’s amazing what you can do when you are clean and sober.”

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