The State of New Jersey has finally passed a law establishing "veterans diversion courts," which basically divert veterans and active military personnel away from the criminal justice system into appropriate case management and mental heath services. At last count, New Jersey was one only 12 states that had not established veterans courts.
Under the law, S-307, those eligible for the “Statewide Veterans Diversion Program” will be veterans or service members with a prior diagnosis of mental illness or for whom a law enforcement officer or prosecutor has a reasonable belief has a mental illness based on behaviors and symptoms exhibited during the commission of the offense, while in custody, or based on information provided by family members or associates during the investigation.
The program will be available to defendants charged with a nonviolent petty disorderly persons offense, a disorderly persons offense, or crime of the third or fourth degree. It will provide for diversion and referral services, through a Veterans Diversion Resource entity, which will facilitate screening, counseling, treatment and case management for mental health issues and other co-occurring health disorders as well as coordination of services with appropriate federal, state or local agencies offering services to veterans.
“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," said Senator Jeff Van Drew, sponsor of the bill in the state senate. "These men and women need treatment, not punishment. 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.”
According to Assemblymen Bob Andrzejczak, Bruce Land and and Vince Mazzeo, who sponsored the bill in the N.J. State Assembly, “The wounds of war are not just physical. Many soldiers return home with mental trauma that, when untreated, puts them and others at risk. These veterans need mental health services, not jail. We owe it to them, and the public, to ensure that we are treating those veterans with mental health issues so that they are not a danger to themselves or others. Jail should not be the first recourse for veterans whose transgressions can be linked to an untreated mental illness. These veterans sacrificed themselves to protect our country. They deserve treatment, not punishment.”
The New Jersey Assembly approved the measure 70-0 on February 15 and the Senate 34-0 on March 13.
A second law, which assists veterans with service-related mental illness who have been arrested, was signed by Gov. Christie on May 2. Under this law, veterans who have committed a crime and were previously diagnosed with a service-related mental illness may be diverted from the criminal justice system and into appropriate case management and mental health services.
Sponsored by the Assembly's Republican leader Jon Bramnick, the law establishes a veteran's diversion resource center in each county that will provide screening, counseling and treatment to service members and report on participation to law enforcement officials.
Veterans advocate Joe Griffies, host of WIBG's "The Welcome Home Show" and a long-time advocate of veterans courts in New Jersey, said "The costs of war can never be measured in dollars and cents. Mental and physical hardships are the real costs of war. We must make sure we help these men and women get every chance possible to become a part of society in this great country that they made possible."