(TRENTON) – An Assembly panel on Thursday released legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Bob Andrzejczak, Vince Mazzeo, Bruce R. Land, Cleopatra Tucker and Dan Benson to send veterans suffering from mental illness, who have committed a non-violent crime, to a treatment program, instead of the criminal justice system where they are unlikely to receive treatment.
According to Justice for Vets, one in five veterans has symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment, and one in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from a substance abuse issue. The sponsors believe treatment would better serve these veterans and the public by reducing the likelihood of recidivism.
“The wounds of war are not just physical. Many soldiers return home with mental trauma that, when untreated, puts them and others at risk,” said Andrzejczak (D-Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland). “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,” said Mazzeo (D-Atlantic). “These veterans sacrificed themselves to protect our country. They deserve treatment, not punishment.”
“Untreated mental illness and criminal behavior often go hand in hand,” said Land (D–Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland). “We have a moral obligation to get these veterans the help they need, so they can return to some type of normalcy and not become a public safety hazard.”
“Sending a veteran suffering from mental health issues to jail does not address the root of the problem,” said Tucker (D-Essex). “We can either treat the problem, or deal with the consequences of a mental illness gone unchecked. Our veterans and the public deserve better.”
“Veterans who put themselves on the line for this country and are now suffering for it deserve our empathy, not a rush to judgement,” said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “We only need to look at recent events to see how dangerous an untreated mental illness can be.”
The bill (A-4362) would require that the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA) collaborate with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to establish a statewide Veterans Diversion Program to divert eligible service members who have committed certain offenses away from the criminal justice system and into appropriate case management and mental health services.
Under the bill, a service member is eligible for admission into the program if he or she committed an eligible offense and has a prior diagnosis of service-related mental illness or other indications of mental illness. An eligible offense is defined by the bill as a non-violent petty disorderly persons offense, disorderly persons offense, or crime of the third or fourth degree.
Under the bill, DMVA is to collaborate with the VA, the United States Veterans Health Administration (USHA), United States Vet Centers (Vet Centers) and other federal, state, and local government agencies that serve veterans to coordinate a Veterans Diversion Resource Center (VDRC) in each county. Each VDRC must serve as the single point of access and referral in each county to facilitate the diversion or referral of eligible service members into case management and mental-health services. The VDRC would be capable of providing screening, counseling, treatment and case management for mental health issues and other co-occurring health disorders to eligible service members or coordinating these services through the appropriate federal, state, and local government agencies.
An eligible service member would not be admitted to the program, if the person has criminal charges pending for a crime of the second degree or higher, if the crime or offense involved violence or the threat of violence, or if the person was previously convicted of a violent crime as enumerated in existing statute. In addition, there is a presumption against admission into the Veterans Diversion Program, subject to the discretion of the prosecutor after consulting with any victim, for a service member charged with; (1) any crime or offense involving domestic violence; or (2) if the person committed the crime or offense while subject to a temporary or permanent restraining order.
The bill was approved by the Assembly Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee.