Nonviolent offenders with mental illness could be diverted away from New Jersey’s mainstream criminal justice system and into a rehabilitation program designed to provide treatment for their psychiatric disorder, under an initiative envisioned by a longtime Democratic Senator that also reflects the goals of a growing national movement.
Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) said she plans to introduce comprehensive legislation next week to create a new program that would involve specific crisis-intervention training for law enforcement to reduce the number of mentally ill individuals arrested. It would also create a process to help the court system identify and assist perpetrators who would benefit from behavioral health services, as well as call for additional coordination between the state’s mental health officials and criminal justice officials. Law enforcement would have discretion in deciding who is appropriate for diversion, she said.
According to federal data released by Turner’s office, more than half of the men — and nearly three-quarters of the women — incarcerated in the United States are mentally ill. Nearly one in four have been in jail three or more times. In New Jersey, some 17,000 adults and youth are held in the Department of Correction’s 13 institutions.
“Laws are created to protect society, and this one would do that on many levels,” Turner said. “If people go into a jail cell with mental illness, they come out of the jail cell with mental illness.” Instead, she said her program would give law enforcement new tools to address someone in a psychiatric crisis and also provide “much needed treatment to some of the most vulnerable among us so that they can move forward with productive, lawful lives.”
2 million mentally ill jailed each year
The proposal echoes the efforts of the Stepping Up Initiative, a nationwide campaign led by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Council of State Governments Justice Center, National Association of Counties, American Psychiatric Foundation, and numerous law enforcement associations and behavioral health organizations. According to the group, 2 million seriously mentally ill individuals are jailed each year.
Stepping Up seeks to reduce this number by diverting nonviolent individuals with mental health issues “at any point in the process,” including avoiding arrest, ensuring proper treatment in jail, or providing behavioral health resources for those who are on parole or released. Since May 2015, more than 425 counties nationwide have signed on to these goals, including all those in Arizona, most in Iowa, Ohio, and North Carolina, as well as a half-dozen counties in Pennsylvania and New York that border the Garden State.
Mental health issues are not the only chronic health concerns common among inmates in America. Studies suggest that as many as seven in 10 prisoners are battling a substance-use disorder of some nature, a problem that New Jersey has sought to address on several levels. Former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who prioritized efforts to address the opioid epidemic at the end of his second term, launched and expanded the state’s drug-court system, which allows nonviolent criminals with addiction issues to opt for a program of highly regulated treatment, instead of jail time.
Last spring Christie also reopened the Mid-State Correctional Facility, a Fort Dix prison closed in 2014, as what officials framed as the nation’s first “rehab prison,” a secure operation with a comprehensive suite of treatment services. A similar program was slated to follow at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for women, in Hunterdon County.
Diversion program similar to drug courts
Turner noted that the Garden State has had “exceptional success” with the drug-court system. “Just like drug courts, this diversion program for the mentally ill would provide treatment to effectively reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses,” she said. “The added benefit of tending to our citizens’ mental health is that we then enable the mainstream justice system and prisons to operate more efficiently for the larger criminal population.”
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat and recovering addict who now lives at the Jersey Shore and advocates for recovery programs, agreed efforts like Stepping Up — which he championed in a letter posted to the NAMI website — can help individuals lead happier, more productive lives. Up to 80 percent of people with mental illness improve with treatment, he said.
But there are also benefits to the criminal-justice system, as jail populations are reduced, and for society at large, Kennedy noted. A court system in Miami-Dade County, in Florida, launched a mental health diversion program in 2000; since then, the county has closed one jail, saving taxpayers $12 million a year, and recidivism — or rate of reoffending by these individuals — dropped to 20 percent from 75 percent, he said.
Kennedy — the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy and the youngest son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — also highlighted the inherent social injustices connected to the current practice. “We don’t throw people in jail for having cancer. We don’t put people in prison for having diabetes. And yet, too often, our response to people with mental illness or addiction is to lock them up,” he wrote.
“The unfairness doesn’t end there,” Kennedy continued, noting that while he has struggled with bipolar disorder and addiction throughout his life, it was unlikely he would ever be locked up — even if he did commit a crime. “But that’s not the case for millions of poor people and people of color who struggle with the same kinds of challenges I have,” he said.
While details of Turner’s proposal were limited, the bill would call for uniformed officers on patrol duty to complete a one-day training program to help them recognize and appropriately respond to an individual experiencing a mental health crisis, including those who may be committing a nonviolent crime.
It would also require the state Police Training Commission to ensure each county is connected with a training program based on the 40-hour training program developed by the Crisis Intervention Team — New Jersey Center for Excellence, an organization launched in 2007 to support law enforcement around the state. A number of officers from each municipal police force would need to take the course.
In addition, the proposal calls for the state Department of Health, which oversees the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, to coordinate with county governments to organize a Mental Health Services Coordinating Council to identify addiction support services — including organizations that can provide screening, treatment, and case management that will help law enforcement assist those who are eligible to avoid jail.