New Jersey will join dozens of other states that seek to divert nonviolent veterans with mental health challenges from the criminal justice system into a network of treatment and support services.
The need is clear: Roughly half the soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, including one in five that suffer from, according to , a national organization seeking to help keep service members out of jail. Some 700,000 vets are incarcerated nationwide, the group notes.
To help ease the situation in the Garden State, Gov. Chris Christie signed bipartisan legislation on Monday to create the “Veterans Diversion Program,” which directs state officials to work with their federal counterparts on a system designed to connect eligible service members with appropriate behavioral healthcare, instead of sending them to jail. The program — similar to the state’s successful drug courts — would link vets with existing services so they could get screening, counseling, and other treatment, not create a new system of care.
The voluntary veterans program would be open to active and retired member of the military, including the reserves, who had been accused of nonviolent crimes and diagnosed with a mental illness, or have demonstrated such symptoms to law enforcement, friends, or family members. Participation allows individuals to avoid a trial and those who complete the program successfully could eventually have the related charge expunged from their criminal record.The birth of veterans courts can be traced back nearly a decade, according to Justice for Vets, to a judge in Buffalo, NY who grew alarmed as a growing number of veterans pouring into the city’s drug and mental health courts. He worked with local medical providers associated with the national Department of Veterans Affairs and volunteer veterans to create a new court system specifically for service members charged with nonviolent crimes. Today there are hundreds of courts in more than 40 states, helping to keep some 10,000 vets out of jail each year.
But New Jersey is one of a handful of states that hadn’t yet implemented this model. The new law, based on legislation () sponsored by Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) and Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), was first introduced in 2014 and passed both houses in recent months. Van Drew is also backing designed to make it easier for veterans to access healthcare by requiring state or local governments to fund certain transportation to providers.
"Too many soldiers and veterans end up in the criminal justice system as a result of invisible wounds they suffer related to their service in combat. These men and women need treatment, not punishment," Van Drew said. "Instead of sending them to jail, this creates a diversion program to provide eligible individuals with the resources they need to get on their feet and to provide for their families."
"We can't begin to imagine the challenges that soldiers face, both during and after their military service," the senator added.
The diversion law calls for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to work with state and county law enforcement officials; the Department of Human Services, which oversees community mental health providers; federal veterans agencies; and others to establish the diversion program and compile a directory of appropriate treatment services. State officials would also need to train a group of active service members or veterans to act as volunteer mentors to individuals who are diverted into the program. These resources would also be distributed for use by county court systems.
The diversion program would not be open to anyone who committed a violent crime, made violent threats, or had a past conviction for such offenses. Police or prosecutors can recommend veterans charged with nonviolent crimes for the program at any point after they are charged and before a trial. The law also calls for state officials to track the program and report to the governor on an annual basis.
“It is impossible to imagine the courage, sacrifices and experiences of the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect the American people and our freedom,” Christie said. “This critical legislation gives back by supporting New Jersey’s military service members when they need it most and when their lives depend on it. This new program will strengthen families and communities, by empowering veterans with individualized, holistic care and steering them clear of the criminal justice system.”
The measure takes effect in seven months, but permits the attorney general, court officials and leaders at DMVA to get started on the development in advance. Christie also signed measures requiring state officials to create an unofficial website for Gold Star families who have lost a loved one in battle and notify county and local veterans organizations when a service member dies.