The "Statewide Veterans Diversion Program," legislation sponsored by South Jersey's Sen. Jeff Van Drew to help veterans and active military who are nonviolent offenders to get treatment rather than prison time, was approved by the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs Committee by a 4-0 vote at a hearing in Trenton on June 9. The bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration.
"Military servicemen and women, as well as veterans, often end up in the criminal justice system as a result of invisible wounds they suffer related to their service," said Sen Van Drew, who represents Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic Counties in the Legislature. "Given all they have done for our country, it is our responsibility to provide these individuals with the assistance and treatment they need to get on their feet and live as productive members of society."
Under the bill, S-307, those eligible for the "Veterans Diversion Program" would be veterans or active military service members with a prior diagnosis of service-related mental illness or for whom a law enforcement officer or prosecutor has a significant belief has a mental illness based on behaviors exhibited during the commission of the offense, while in custody, or based on information provided by family members or associates during the investigation. Active duty members include members of the National Guard and Reserve components who have served on active military duty in any combat theater or area of hostility.
Among those who testified at the hearing on the legislation were Joe Griffies, host of "The Welcome Home Show," a program for and about veterans on WIBG Radio; Jack Fanous, Director of The G.I. Go Veterans Transition Center of Newark and The G.I. Go Fund; attorneys Thomas Roughneen and William Dennis Brown, Jr., a Navy SEAL and Iraq veteran; and Robert McNulty, Sr., chairman of the Government Affairs Committee of the New Jersey State Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
In a passionate speech about why veterans courts are needed in New Jersey, Griffies cited the case of a veteran who was arrested for driving down the center of a highway instead of the appropriate lane. Griffies said that was the way veterans drove in Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid the IEDs (bombs) that were planted in the driving lanes in those countries to kill American servicemen and women.
He concluded by noting that New Jersey is one of only 12 states throughout the country that does not have veterans courts — "and we have to do better."
McNulty said that programs have been developed in recent years "to avoid unnecessary incarceration of veterans who have deployed to war and subsequently developed mental health problems. The programs aim to assist veterans who become involved in the justice system to get treatment for mental health problems that may exist– especially for veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq."
In his testimony, Thomas Roughneen noted that, unlike a majority of parolees, "the re-arrest rates of veterans are at unprecedented lows. They are patriots, not criminals. In Buffalo, New York — home to one of the first and most widely studied Veterans Courts — not one single defendant has been re-arrested after going through the treatment program. Veterans Criminal Diversion Programs save money, families and lives.
"If our justice and mental health systems are collaborating, we can provide more positive outcomes not only for those with mental health illnesses, but for our taxpayers as well. Instead of a jail sentence or New Jersey taxpayers paying for drug and alcohol treatment, the VA pays. That is a cost savings and immediately adds treatment capacity."