New Jersey’s Veterans Court Law ‘Doesn’t Help Those Who Need It Most’

New Jersey's Veterans Court Law 'Doesn't Help Those Who Need It Most'

The following editorial appeared in the Times of Trenton on May 5, 2017:

Gov. Christie signed an important, bipartisan bill this week designed to help nonviolent veterans who are grappling with mental health challenges, rather than sending them to jail.

Those last five words are the key: Rather than sending them to jail.

About half of the soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with mental health problems, including one in five living with the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Roughly 700,000 of our veterans are serving time behind bars, according to the advocacy group Justice for Vets.  Think of it: We send them to wage war in another country, then we sentence them to hell back home.

Language excludes vets with charged with more serious crimes

Under the new measure, sponsored by state Sens. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) and Diane Allen (R-Burlington), eligible returning service members can receive screening, counseling and other treatment before they become bound up in the criminal justice system.

"These men and women need treatment, not punishment," Van Drew said of the bill, which has been under consideration since 2014.

The voluntary initiative, dubbed the "Veterans Diversion Program," will find state officials working with their federal counterparts to connect eligible service members with appropriate existing healthcare programs.

It's open to active and retired members of the military – including those in the reserves – who have been accused of nonviolent crimes and who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, including drug and alcohol abuse.

Those who opt in can avoid a trial; those who finish out the program might even have the related charges dropped from their record.

The program has obvious advantages. It is a humane approach for handling the collateral damage to those returning from service with deep-seated emotional wounds; it helps unclog an already overtaxed criminal justice system; and it helps keep families together.

What it doesn't do, some critics argue, is address the more serious types of crimes veterans sometimes become involved in.

"The awful truth is that many of these people have offenses that are violent or serious, and they are the ones who need help the most," says Thomas Roughneen.  Himself an Iraq War veteran, Roughneen is an attorney at Citizen Soldier Law, a practice in Chatham that specializes in helping veterans and members of the military.

Van Drew, the bill's sponsor, acknowledges that the more violent offenders are not qualified for the pre-trial program. But he's right that this is just a first step, bringing New Jersey into line with the majority of states that have already introduced the reform.

Like him, we'll be eager to see how this plays out when the measure takes effect seven months from now. Once the returns are in, lawmakers can turn their energy to making the program more accessible to all those who need it.