NJ considers sending criminals to mental health treatment, not jail
A proposed law advanced by a panel of New Jersey legislators aims to create a statewide program for steering certain criminals with mental illness away from incarceration and toward mental health treatment.
Under the bill as it's written currently, eligible offenders would include those who commit non-violent disorderly offenses or crimes of the third or fourth degree. One would be eligible for admission into mandatory treatment, rather than jail, if one has a prior diagnosis of mental illness or other indications of mental illness.
"This isn't a get-out-of-jail program. This is to help people who have mental illness so they don't get caught in the incarceration system," said Carl Herman with the state's Office of the Public Defender. "We're paying $61,000 a year ... to keep people in jail who don't have to be in jail."
A jail diversion program for individuals with mental health issues has been in place in Union County since 2006, according to the legislation. Since then, prosecutor's offices in Ocean, Essex, Gloucester, Hunterdon, and Warren counties have introduced similar programs.
Testifying on behalf of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association, Adam Sagot said the diversion system works, especially when mental health professionals are enrolled to effectively screen individuals for eligibility.
"Upwards of 25% of all inmates in jails or prison settings have a mental health diagnosis," Sagot said.
Sponsors of the bill say it's very much a work in progress. It's not yet known whether such a program would work best when controlled by prosecutors or when modeled after the more collaborative approach that's currently used to divert offenders who have substance use disorder, according to Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson.
The bill was advanced by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Sept. 29 and is now waiting for action by the Assembly Human Services Committee. Assemblyman Robert Auth, R-Passaic, abstained from voting.
"Is it advisable to jump in with both feet ... or do you think the prudent course would be to start with a pilot program?" Auth said.
A Senate version of the bill has not yet been heard.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee also heard testimony, but did not vote, on legislation that would create a pilot for a gambling treatment diversion court program.