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Declaring Violence a Public Health Crisis, Lesniak Bill Seeks Commission to Study Sources

'Multifaceted approach to violence' stresses treatment for mentally ill, not jail-time.

Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union)
Credit: Amanda Brown
Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union)

New Jersey would declare violence a public health crisis and establish a commission to study its causes under a bill announced by state Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union) on Wednesday.

The measure also would expand mental health programs and recommend that the federal government adopt gun control measures in the wake of the Newtown, CT massacre.

“We want to do whatever’s possible to avoid something like that,” Lesniak said.

The mass shooting appears to have opened a window of opportunity for proposals to increase gun control and funding for mental health services, judging by the number that have been introduced nationwide.

While New Jersey already has one of the most stringent gun laws in the country, bill supporters said there are other ways to expand the state’s efforts to prevent violence.

State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Hunterdon and Mercer), a bill cosponsor, said, “We know that we have a grave problem in this country with guns, but what is most important about this legislation is that it is a multifaceted approach to violence.”

That approach can be seen in the interrelated ways the bill addresses violence, especially gun violence.

For example, it seeks to identify mentally ill people snared in the criminal justice system, steering them toward treatment rather than punishment. That, in turn, should help reduce recidivism, breaking the "swinging door" cycle that returns ex-offenders to the criminal population within a few months or a few years of their release.

A permanent commission, meanwhile, would make it possible for the state to explore the root causes of violence and keep attention focused on the issue, Lesniak said.

And by beefing up funding for involuntary committals, the bill wants to make it easier to identify and treat unstable, potentially violent individuals before they can harm society or themselves.

“We know that it takes more than just law enforcement. We need more mental health services for those people who are not receiving it now,” Lesniak said.

Salaam Ismial, director of the United Youth Council, has supported declaring violence a public health crisis for 20 years. He noted the August shooting at an Old Bridge Pathmark, where an employee armed with an assault rifle killed two coworkers and himself.

“This is only the first step,” Ismial said of the bill introduction, adding that it will take intensive lobbying for the measure to become law. Ismail, whose organization advocates for the interest of urban youths, said parents, celebrities, and the media should all focus on heading off violence.

“Everybody has to play a role, and that’s the real deal,” said Ismail, an Elizabeth resident.

New Jersey is rated by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence as having the second-strongest controls on guns in the country, after California. However, “to a great extent, they are rendered somewhat ineffective,” by guns purchased in other states and brought to New Jersey, Lesniak said.

The bill urges the federal government to reinstate its ban on assault weapons and expand background checks to all gun sales and transfers.

“This is a problem every day in this country that doesn’t quite exist anywhere else in the world, so there’s got to be something that we have to do about it that we’re not,” he said.

The bill was supported by Doreen Yanik, supervisor of the Union County prosecutor’s special offenders unit, who said the county has had success by diverting people facing prosecution toward mental health services rather than criminal penalties.

“There was a marked decrease in recidivism among those individuals and an increase in their global level of functioning,” Yanik said of program participants.

The effectiveness of the Union County program was affirmed by psychiatry professor Kenneth Gill of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, who studied it.

“It’s fairly unique and they’re doing a good job,” Gill said, adding that often for those with mental illnesses “jail is the worst place.”

Gill added that the program succeeds in an area that is generally not well developed in the United States: coordinating the work of law enforcement and mental health professionals. Lesniak said the commission could explore expanding this program across the state.

The bill also seeks increased funding for involuntary commitments of mentally ill residents. While Lesniak didn’t have an estimate for how much funding is necessary, he said the program has lost funding under Gov. Chris Christie. He wants Christie to expand the program in the next state budget.

The commission called for in the proposal has a broad set of responsibilities. Basically, it would study the trends, sources, and impact of violence “to develop a method to address the epidemic of violence at federal and state levels and to make recommendations for state and Congressional action,” according to the bill’s text.

"To the greatest extent practical," reads the proposal, the panel would comprise individuals with a "background in mental health and criminology."

One of the nine members of the panel would be recommended by Ismial's United Youth Council. Another would be recommended by the County Prosecutors Association.

In addition, the commission would conduct public hearings and seek funding grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other nonprofits.

Lesniak noted that public attention on gun violence rises after mass shootings but then drops in the following months. The commission would keep gun violence in the public's eye.

“All of these individual cases [of gun violence] add up to an epidemic of violence and that epidemic of violence has a great impact on the public’s safety and health,” Lesniak said. “What the bill will do is keep our focus on the goal. We have to turn around a culture of violence that exists in this country.”

One area that bill supporters said the commission could explore is the link between violence and media. Rutgers-Newark psychology professor Paul Boxer said research has established that exposure to violent media is a risk factor in committing violence. Boxer agrees with the declaration of violence as a public health crisis.

Violent media “teaches aggressive and violent behavior,” Boxer said. “A child watching violence on television, violence in the movies, violence in video games, is taking direct part in engaging in violence in an observational way. The child is acquiring a script about how conflict may be resolved, very much like a movie script or a television script.”

He added that this exposure tends to desensitize viewers to violence in real life, lowering inhibitions against violent behavior “because we simply care less about what happens to our victims.”

Boxer noted that the government is limited in what steps it can take to prevent children from being exposed to violent media, making it all the more important that parents are actively involved in monitoring their children’s media intake. He limits his seven-year-old son’s TV viewing and videogame playing, and talks with him when he is advertently exposed to violence.

“We can’t say with 100 percent authority that the kinds of media products they are consuming are not having an impact on their behavior because we’re not seeing all of their behavior,” Boxer said of parental attitudes.

Both Boxer and bill supporters said they would like to see violence prevention programs at the elementary school level.

The bill introduced by Lesniak and Turner isn’t the only legislative effort hoping to stymie gun violence. Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald (D-Burlington and Camden) introduced legislation that would regulate ammunition sales and transfers and would require that all ammunition transactions be done in person.

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