Senator Jeff Van Drew released the following statement July 19 under the headline, "NJ Veterans Need Treatment, Not Punishment," which explains the need for a program that is generally referred to as a "veterans court." Van Drew represents the 1st. Legislative District in New Jersey, which includes Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic Countries.
"Nearly 200,000 military veterans are incarcerated in the United States, and statistics show that nearly half were once told by a health professional they had a mental health disorder.
"These men and women go off to serve and many times return with both visible and invisible wounds. Sadly, too often, they do not receive the treatment and services they ned whn they come home, and some end up in the criminal justice system and in our jails and prisons
"I am sponsoring legislation (S-307) that has already ben approved by he Senate Military Veterans' Affairs Committee to create a 'Statewide Veterans Diversion Program' aimed at helping nonviolent offenders who are veterans or active military and diverting them away from he criminal justice system as early as possible following an interaction with law enforcement.
"Instead of sending them to jail, the program would provide appropriate case management — guiding them toward mental health services and helping them to find housing or employment.
"The program would be similar to 'Veterans Court' programs operating in cities such as Philadelphia and Buffalo, which we have heard are working well. My legislation would create a structure that would allow each county in New Jersey to create a diversion program, with a single point of entry for both veterans and active duty military in each county for services and referrals.
"It would be available to defendants charged with a non-violent petty disorderly persons offense, disorderly persons offense or crime of the fourth degree, Those eligible would be veterans or active duty military personnel with a prior diagnosis of service-related mental illness or for whom law enforcement has a reasonable belief of a mental illness based on behaviors exhibited, or on information provided by family members or associates during the investigation.
"Upon entering, service members would be provided screening, counseling, treatment and case management for mental health issues and other co-occurring health disorders as well referrals to appropriate services. They would be paired with a mentor, a volunteer veteran assigned by the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and if they comply with the program could have the charge dismissed. On the other hand, failure to comply would result in the case going forward.
"This kind of program is so important to ensuring that veterans, who have sacrificed for our safety — but who have somehow found themselves going down the wrong path — are given a second chance.
"They deserve it.
"The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 77 percent of veterans in prison and jail received an honorable discharge or a general discharge under honorable conditions.
"I have the privilege of serving alongside two veterans — Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak and Assemblyman Bruce Land — who between them have three Bronze Stars, a Soldier's Medal and a Purple Heart. One thing I know from speaking with them is that veterans come home having served in very difficult conditions and under circumstances that we can only imagine. No one can really know what they're facing unless they've literally walked in their boots.
"We must make sure that soldiers and veterans do not have to deal with these difficulties on their own. Rather than allowing them to fall into the criminal justice system and to sit in prisons or jails, it's crucial that we provide the necessary services to lead those facing minor charges toward a healthy and productive life."
For more on veterans courts, read Legislation to Create Veterans Courts in New Jersey Clears First Hurdle.