N.J. has a new diversion program for people with mental illness who commit certain types of crimes

People with mental illness who commit certain crimes in N.J. may be diverted out of the criminal justice system.

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New Jersey Sen. Teresa Ruiz speaks into a microphone

File photo: New Jersey Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Newark, was the prime sponsor of legislation that has just become law to create a statewide mental health diversion program for some people charged with criminal offenses who have a mental illness.(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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A New Jersey bill is now law that will create a statewide program to divert some people with certified mental illnesses who commit certain crimes into a special treatment program rather than sending them to prison.

The prime sponsor of the legislation, New Jersey state Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, said this new law makes sense because a significant number of people  enter the criminal justice system who are suffering from mental illness.

“The core of their issue is a mental health issue, criminalizing that doesn’t help the individual, it doesn’t help recidivism, and doesn’t help any of those agencies that then become part of the network that’s around that person,” Ruiz said.

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“There are many individuals that end up in the criminal justice system, that at the time of committing the crime, were presenting or in the middle of a crisis,” she continued.

One such person, 58-year-old Newark resident April Wilson, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 21.

After graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in psychology, she earned  another degree in psych rehabilitation from the University of Medicine and Dentistry.  She held a steady job for years and taught a mental health Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) course for law enforcement — but then her medication stopped working properly.

She had never been in trouble with the law, but in 2018 she was arrested twice for burglary, damaging property, and assaulting a neighbor. She wound up spending four months in jail and more than eight months in two different psychiatric hospitals.

“I just lost touch with reality, my thoughts were not clear, I thought they were out to hurt me,” she said.

During the time when she was incarcerated, a public defender recognized Wilson from the CIT class she once taught. After she was transferred to a psychiatric hospital, that lawyer worked to get her into an Essex County mental health diversion program.

Wilson’s medication was changed, she was admitted into the program, and did well. She has avoided additional jail time and hasn’t had any problems since.

“They knew about my mental illness, they understood this was not a normal case,” she said. “This is not who she [Wilson] normally is.”

Ruiz said if people with mental health issues pay their debt to society and spend a certain amount of time in prison, but then are not medically treated for the root cause of the problem, “chances are they’re going to come back out, unfortunately perhaps another incident will occur, and then the revolving door of recidivism just continues to go.”

In order to be eligible to participate in the statewide mental health diversion program, which will be coordinated by the New Jersey Department of Human Services, someone charged with an eligible criminal offense must have a diagnosed mental illness, and a mental health professional must certify there is a direct link between the crime that’s been committed and the mental illness.

Republican state Senator Joe Pennacchio is opposed to the new law, calling it a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”

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“At one time it was up to the judge and the jury to decide if there was a mental incapacity if you use as your defense. Now that is the sole discretion of the prosecutor,” he said.

Pennacchio said 21 different prosecutors may have 21 different opinions about whether an individual should be admitted to the mental health diversion program.

“At least with the court there would be some type of consistency in the way that these rulings happen,” he said. “There really won’t be any consistency, it will be totally determined by a prosecutor at his own sole discretion to avail this person to this program.”

According to the new law a person is eligible for admission into the program, which includes counseling and treatment services, if they have committed a non-violent lower-level crime, and have a prior diagnosis of mental illness or other indications of mental illness.

The law stipulates individuals are typically not eligible for the program if they have committed a crime involving violence or the threat of violence, if the crime or offense involves the violation of any restraining order or protective order of another person, or when the crime victim of the offense objects to the diversion.

Periodic status reports will be issued to law enforcement regarding the eligible person’s participation and recovery progress.

The prosecutor in the county where the crime was committed has the sole discretion to determine if an eligible person qualifies for and is admitted to the Mental Illness Diversion Program after consideration of the nature of the offenses and all relevant issues.

To qualify for the new diversion program, an eligible person must agree in writing to certain terms and conditions and the prosecutor would determine the duration of the person’s participation in the program, not to exceed two years.

The legislation was approved almost six months ago, but Ruiz asked Governor Murphy to conditionally veto the measure, and he did so in order to allow possible loopholes to be tightened after some Republican legislators voiced fears some Megan’s Law criminals could become eligible for it.

Ruiz said she believes this was “an attempt to create a false narrative” about the program and who might possibly be allowed to participate in it, and specific changes in the language of the legislation were made to allay any doubts and fears.

Nevertheless most Republicans in the Senate did not support the measure when it was reintroduced in the Upper House for a vote a few days before Christmas, and several GOP members in the Assembly also voted no.

Pennacchio argues mental health checks and balances already exist within the system and this is an attempt at “social engineering, whatever we were doing for 250 years wasn’t quite working the way they wanted to, so we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Ruiz argues this kind of legislation makes sense now because mental health has become a front-burner issue and there is a growing trend “to call for help, to create better policies that wrap around communities that don’t have access to professionals that perhaps are at their fingertips or covered by Medicaid and for the under-insured.”

She said mental health diversion programs in different parts of the state have been operating successfully for many years, including one in Essex County, and the new statewide law is modeled after that program to a large degree.

Ruiz noted while there is now a statewide mental health diversion program, counties that already have successful programs in place — including Essex, Union, Ocean, Gloucester, Hunterdon and Warren — may choose to continue to operate them.

Wilson, who now has a criminal record, said the mental health diversion program literally saved her life.

“The program taught me there is help for people with mental illness,” she said. “We don’t deserve to be thrown in jail with no representation, we can become productive members of society.”

We need support, we need education to help us through our psychotic episodes,” she said.

Wilson is now continuing to volunteer to help teach law enforcement about mental health issues.

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