Sen. Teresa Ruiz said these programs, operating now in five counties, are working and authorities in other counties should be given the chance to try them. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
A Senate panel approved a measure Tuesday to expand an intervention program that diverts some nonviolent offenders to mental health treatment programs, preparing the bill for a final vote.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), would expand mental health diversion programs that exist in five New Jersey counties to three new court jurisdictions.
“We’re doing this in an attempt to fund those programs that are working and to give the power to the attorney general to fund other counties or regional districts that want to pursue this avenue,” Ruiz said.
The diversion programs function much like recovery court, allowing individuals with mental health disorders facing criminal charges to avoid jail time and, if they graduate from the program, have their charges expunged.
Lawmakers amended the bill, which the panel approved in a strict party-line vote, to specify that individuals charged with a first-degree crime are ineligible for the diversion program in all circumstances and to require a licensed mental health professional — instead of a certified one — to determine whether a person’s mental disorder is key to their commission of an alleged crime.
Republicans have raised alarms over the measure, alleging it would push violent offenders onto New Jersey streets.
“This is a bad bill. It’s a bad law with dangerous consequences. Advocates of this bill will try to tell you or sell you on the fact that it does not apply to violent criminals. That is patently untrue,” said Sen. Doug Steinhardt (R-Warren).
The bill would give prosecutors authority over who enters the mental health diversion programs, contingent upon the findings of mental health examiners.
Individuals accused of violent crimes, sex offenses subject to Megan’s Law, and certain weapons offenses are presumed ineligible for mental health diversion, but the bill allows prosecutors to admit them.
Officials from the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, which has operated a mental health diversion program for nearly a dozen years, said few admitted to the program — less than 1% — have reoffended after graduating.
“It has been an overwhelming success,” acting Essex County Prosecutor Ted Stephens told the panel. “In the 12 years we’ve been running the program — approximately at 30 or so individuals every year — only two individuals in our record have ever had any recidivism.”
The Assembly Appropriations Committee is due to weigh the bill Thursday, and it could see final votes before both chambers as early as Monday. The bill would go into effect 17 months after it’s signed into law.
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