MAYS LANDING — Five years ago, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Mark Sandson was working almost exclusively on mortgage foreclosures that wound their way through the courts after the 2008 financial crisis.
The county was “right in the bull’s-eye, the crosshairs of the center of this thing because of the disintegration of the gaming industry,” Sandson said.
But then, he moved over to leading Atlantic and Cape May counties’ drug court program, now called recovery court, because he was “looking for something with a little more hope,” he said.
“I was very, very motivated,” Sandson said. “Like everybody else — you talk to anybody in our society, and you ask them, ‘How have you been impacted by the addiction catastrophe?’ and almost everybody has people in their families, and I did too.”
Sandson’s last day on the bench was Nov. 9 — one day before his 70th birthday, the state’s mandatory retirement age for judges. While only the last five years of his decades-long career in the judiciary was spent working on the court’s impact on addiction and recovery in South Jersey, the changes and improvements he made to the program will not be soon forgotten.
He brought a particular humor and empathy to the bench, his colleagues said, as he worked with defendants, changed the very name of the program and worked tirelessly to get those in recovery stable jobs.
“It was very important, personally, to take over and see what I could do to make things better,” Sandson said. “I was extremely personally committed and I was determined to make some changes.”
‘There’s a lot in a name’
After learning that employers weren’t exactly keen on having workers actively in a program called “drug court,” Sandson realized that the implications can lead to participants being stigmatized or minimized, he said.
“The old Shakespearean question is ‘What’s in a name?’” he said. “There’s a lot in a name.”
So, he changed it in 2017 after getting approval from state judicial officials.
“We want to stress getting good jobs, decent jobs, on the books with benefits,” Sandson said. “Living on the fringes of the community without a job on the books means you’re susceptible to anybody doing anything to you and you have very little, if any, recourse. And, very frankly, a lot of our people facing stigmatization of drug court wanted to get a good job.”
Nineteen counties across the state still use “drug court,” Sandson said, adding that he hopes that changes.
“We don’t do drugs, we do recovery,” Sandson said. “And what is recovery? It’s getting back all the things you left in your life of addiction.”
‘The only social program that works is a job’
But connecting defendants to jobs, and not just gig jobs, but decent jobs with benefits and stability, was next, he said. Sandson reached out to the local casino industry, convincing them to hire those participating in the newly renamed recovery court program.
He pitched his idea to officials and the casino industry responded, he said, getting jobs at each property in the resort. He also reached out to Stockton University, finding more jobs there and a scholarship for participants awarded each semester. He’s connected with Atlantic Cape Community College to work on a vocational program.
“This is the way out, along with treatment,” he said. “Treatment alone can be successful, but you have to give people hope that they’ll be able to make a decent living and not being the last person in every line — a job does that.”
‘I’m all in on this’
Now, Cape May County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey J. Waldman will take over where Sandson left off, leading the recovery courts in both counties.
“I’m fortunate to build on the great foundation that Judge Sandson has put in place for our well-respected program,” Waldman said. “It’s our intention as a team, to carry on his tradition of innovation, dedication and immersion into the program and the lives of our participants.”
But, for Sandson, the work isn’t done just because he’s off the bench. He’s now vice chairman of the Judiciary Opportunities for Building Success, or JOBS, program.
He’s doing what he’s done before, pitching companies to consider hiring recovery court participants, but this time with Goya Foods, NJ Transit, Amazon, Wayfair and others, Sandson said.
But, in an extremely humble fashion that is typical of Sandson, he continuously shared credit for his achievements with fellow judges, county law enforcement, court staff and others who worked alongside him, saying simply, “it was the right job for me, and I think I did a decent job.”
“I’m all in on this,” Sandson said. “And I will stay all in on this until I no longer want to do it. But, I’m highly energized and highly motivated to make change. My motivation has increased with time, not decreased with time. I haven’t been jaded. I am determined to make a difference in this area, and I think I can help.”