|TRENTON – Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced today that a pilot program in Atlantic County aimed at identifying and providing community-based services to veterans and active duty military personnel who become involved in the criminal justice system has been extended through June 30, 2014.
The Veterans Pilot Initiative, which started in 2011, provides community-based programs such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, anger management, and family counseling to eligible veterans and active duty military personnel who become involved in the criminal justice system when the commission of the crime appears related to a substance abuse or mental health issue.
“Active military personnel and veterans who put their lives on the line to keep our country safe deserve all possible resources available to them as they return home from war,” Acting Attorney General Hoffman said. “The Veterans Pilot Initiative gives those who have protected us the opportunity to obtain treatment and counseling instead of being incarcerated for crimes linked to their mental health or substance abuse disorder. To date, the program has afforded more than two dozen members of the military the opportunity for a fresh start.”
As of July 30, 2013, 29 individuals participated in the program. Only four were rearrested, and only one was re-incarcerated. Yet, the success of the program cannot be measured in statistics alone. Rather, success is measured in the stories of people like Victor Batts, an honorably discharged member of the Army National Guard, who developed a substance abuse problem related to lung disease. Charged with assault in 2012, Mr. Batts was referred to the Veterans Pilot Initiative, where he secured housing, was linked to treatment, and secured Social Security benefits. Having just celebrated his 50th birthday, Mr. Batts is now putting the technician training he received in the National Guard to use at his job repairing golf carts. He also has been connected with the Northfield VA Outpatient Clinic and is being placed on a donor list for a lung transplant.
“The program is part of a growing network of support services that the State of New Jersey provides to our veterans,” said Brig. Gen. Michael L. Cunniff, The Adjutant General, New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “This continuation will benefit the nearly 18,000 veterans in Atlantic County.”
“Making mental health and substance abuse recovery services available to our military service members, veterans and their families has helped many of them overcome these issues, regain control of their lives and prevent potential involvement in the criminal justice system,” said Department of Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez, who also noted that reintegration into civilian life, after combat and military service can further exacerbate mental health and substance abuse issues. The Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services contracts with Jewish Family Service of Atlantic and Cape May Counties (JFS) to provide the treatment.
"This program makes sense on several levels,” Acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain said. “It is an opportunity to treat veterans whose mental and emotional infirmities may have begun as a result of their military service, and it also is an opportunity to address and remediate the root cause of some criminal behavior. The program looks to prevent crime and effectively and cost efficiently treat offenders, and everyone in the criminal justice system supports those goals."
As part of the program, if a person who is charged with committing a crime in Atlantic County is a veteran, a member of the reserve or active duty military personnel, he or she is screened and evaluated by a licensed clinician from JFS.
The evaluation is given to the prosecutor and defense counsel with a recommendation as to whether the person should be considered for services through the program. Plea agreements or diversion options are made at the discretion of the prosecutor’s office; however, treatment conditions are placed on any defendant in the program tailored to his or her needs and based on the recommendation of the service provider. Program participants receive case management from JFS and, where requested, reports are provided to the court on the status of the individual’s progress.