NJ Program Accomplishes Goal of ‘Veterans Courts’ Established in Cities In US, Diverting Combat Veterans Away from Criminal Justice System
TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Jeff Van Drew to create a “Statewide Veterans Diversion Program” aimed at helping veterans and active military by diverting them away from the criminal justice system and into appropriate case management and mental health services as early as possible following an interaction with law enforcement was signed into law today by Governor Christie.
“We can’t begin to imagine the challenges that soldiers face, both during and after their military service,” added Senator Van Drew (D-Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic). “Rather than allowing them to fall into the criminal justice system, this program will better ensure that service members and veterans, who have found themselves headed down the wrong path, are given treatment and a second chance.”
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. These men and women need treatment, not punishment,” said Senator Van Drew. “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.”
When a person is taken into custody for an eligible offense, the responding law enforcement officer will inquire as to whether the person is a service member or has ever served in the military. If the law enforcement officer determines that the person is eligible, the law enforcement officer would proceed with a preference for diversion to a Veterans Diversion Resource entity or other community-based mental health services in lieu of filing a criminal complaint. An eligible servicemember, the public defender or the defendant’s counsel could also apply to the prosecutor for participation in the diversion program. Successful participation could result in the dismissal of charges.
The bill was approved unanimously by the Legislature, receiving final approval in March.
The law takes effect on the first day of the seventh month next following enactment, except that the Attorney General, the Administrative Director of the Courts, and the Adjutant General of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs may take any anticipatory administrative action in advance as shall be necessary for law’s implementation.