TRENTON – Senator Shirley K. Turner will introduce legislation next week that would allow offenders suffering from mental illness to be diverted away from the mainstream criminal justice system and into a rehabilitation process that addresses criminal behavior in the context of mental disorders.
The comprehensive bill would establish uniformed officer training curriculums, guidelines for court proceedings and defendant case reviews, and collaboration between the Police Training Commission (PTC) and the Department of Health’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics report finds that 55 percent of male inmates and 73 percent of female inmates in the U.S. are mentally ill, with 23 percent of these individuals incarcerated three or more times. This widespread practice amounts to large-scale warehousing of mentally ill, low-level offenders in institutions ill-equipped to offer any kind of meaningful remedy.
“New Jersey has had exceptional success with the drug court system which deals with defendants whose criminal conduct is linked to addiction issues. Just like drug courts, this diversion program for the mentally ill would provide treatment to effectively reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses,” said Senator Turner (D-Hunterdon/Mercer). “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.”
The legislation would require uniformed officers assigned to patrol duty to complete a one-day, in-service program offering in-depth training to recognize and appropriately respond to a person experiencing a mental health crisis. It would also call for the Department of Health, in conjunction with county government, to facilitate a Mental Health Services Coordinating Council to identify all screening, treatment and case management resources critical to supporting law enforcement diversion.
In addition, the legislation would charge the PTC to adopt a county-based certification program that educates officers about effective techniques and resources with which to channel persons in mental health crisis into behavioral health treatment services. This 40-hour course, the Crisis Intervention Team – New Jersey Center for Excellence Program, would train a percentage of municipal officers based on the size and responsibilities of the police force and the particular characteristics of the community.
Defendants apprehended for violent crimes would not be eligible for diversion, and law enforcement officers would have discretion in determining whether a criminal complaint should be filed against a person receiving a mental illness evaluation.
“Laws are created to protect society and this one would do that on many levels,” said Senator Turner. “If people go into a jail cell with mental illness, they come out of the jail cell with mental illness. This legislation not only protects law enforcement officers and the public, but it provides much needed treatment to some of the most vulnerable among us so that they can move forward with productive, lawful lives.”