HomeHealthMental HealthNew Jersey bill advances that would keep people with mental illness out...

New Jersey bill advances that would keep people with mental illness out of court system

Legislators advanced a account On Thursday, that would divert nonviolent criminal offenders from the justice system to community-based mental health services.

Proponents say that more than a quarter of people now in prison have mental disorders. Connecting them to medical treatment rather than incarcerating them would save the state money and reduce recidivism by better meeting their needs, said Adam Sagot, a psychiatrist at Hackensack Meridien Health.

“We are in an epidemic of mental health crisis,” Sagot said, supporting the bill before the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee. “Anything we can do now to treat these individuals as broadly as possible is in everyone’s interest.”

The account had a few critics.

Councilor Robert Auth, R-Bergen, said the state must first “test the waters” in a few counties to gauge whether such a concept would work before making it mandatory statewide. He was also concerned about not incarcerating people “who might not be quite there…and another innocent victim gets killed or molested or whatever.”

But D-Hudson Councilor Raj Mukherji, who chairs the committee and sponsored the bill with D-Union Councilor Annette Quijano, said only those with diagnosed or suspected mental illness who commit nonviolent disorderly crimes or third- or fourth-degree crimes would be referred for diversion.

And several counties, including Essex, Ocean, Morris, Middlesex and Warren, have long had similar mental health diversion programs, which essentially acted as pilot programs, proving the effectiveness of the approach, Mukherji added.

“We know it works,” agreed Sagot, who testified on behalf of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association.

Carl Herman’s state office of public defender expressed concern about who would decide which offenders would be diverted. The justice system — not the prosecutors — should oversee the program, said Herman, who heads the office’s advocacy.

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“We would like to divert a lot of people… we pay $61,000 a year to keep people in jail who don’t need to be in jail,” Herman said. “But this is not a mental health court. This is a distraction program, which leaves a lot of room for administration.”

Despite such objections, the Assembly Judiciary Committee passed the bill, with Auth abstaining.

Mukherji said the bill is “a work in progress” and could be amended later to allay critics’ concerns.

Earlier in the meeting, lawmakers also heard testimonies about a account that would create a diversion court for offenders whose crimes were motivated by gambling addiction. The bill was scheduled for discussion, and there was no vote.

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