NJ Human Services Announces Pilot Program to Provide Mental Health Screening & Support to Individuals on Pretrial Release

Program is voluntary & available to recently released individuals with serious mental illness in Camden, Essex & Middlesex counties

September 6, 2022

(TRENTON) – In an effort to ensure better outcomes for defendants with serious mental health needs who are on pretrial monitoring, Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman today announced a new pilot program in Camden, Essex and Middlesex counties to identify and connect these individuals to mental health treatment and other vital social services. 

Under the state’s risk-based pre-trial release system, unless a detention motion is filed, a judge must issue a pretrial release decision within 48 hours of jail admission. Release decisions often occur on the same day, sometimes within 6 hours of admission, which can make it challenging to identify and provide treatment to an individual with serious mental illness before they are released.

The mental health diversion program is voluntary, and will provide support and connect individuals on pretrial monitoring to critical mental health, and co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorder treatment, housing, medical and other essential social service supports.

“This will help identify individuals with mental health needs early in the pretrial release process so they can receive the support needed when they are released to the community,” said Commissioner Adelman. “This is a voluntary program, which means those who participate want the help, which is already a step in the right direction. Individuals who participate will be connected to community resources such as housing and employment, and to mental health and substance use assessments, evaluations and treatment to assist their reintegration.”

The Department awarded $1.25 million in funding to Oaks Integrated Care ($416,666) Camden Co; Legacy Treatment Services ($409,035) Middlesex Co.; and the Mental Health Association-Essex/Morris ($424,299) Essex Co. to develop the pilot program, which will provide screening, support, referrals for and provisions of community-based services to address the individual’s mental health and psychiatric rehabilitation needs.

The goal is to identify individuals with a likelihood of a serious mental illness as early as possible in the jail or in the community once an Order of Pretrial Release is issued by the judge.

This program is part of a larger effort undertaken by the Mental Health Advisory Committee to address mental illness in the criminal justice system. The committee was founded by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner in 2019, and is co-chaired by Commissioner Adelman and Morris/Sussex Vicinage Judge Stuart Minkowitz. The pilot program in Camden, Essex and Middlesex counties is an extension of a similar pilot program successfully launched in Morris County back in January. The program in Morris County served 23 individuals on pretrial release, and was highlighted at this year’s Mental Health America’s national conference on criminal justice reform.

“This program is one of several initiatives the committee is focused on to address mental illness in the criminal justice system. I am grateful for this partnership, which includes mental health advocacy groups and local law enforcement, and excited about the work ahead to provide more suitable alternatives to incarceration and improve outcomes for people with mental illness who come into contact with the justice system,” added Commissioner Adelman.

 “When individuals with mental health issues are released from jail without receiving needed treatment, the reality is they will likely return to jail. By simultaneously focusing on both criminal justice and mental health issues, that cycle can be broken. Through this pilot program, the Department of Human Services is providing critical funding and resources to connect individuals to mental health services and treatment when they first interact with the court system. We applaud DHS for their collaboration on a new and sensible approach in response to a national problem,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said. “Working together, this effort can help lead to sustained recovery for individuals in a way that benefits them as well as the community.” 

The program will include collaboration with local social service organizations, the county jail, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC)/Judiciary county-specific staff including judges, the pretrial services units, criminal division offices, and probation division offices, the County Prosecutor’s Office, the local Public Defender’s Office, and private defense attorneys.

“This is a multidisciplinary, concerted effort to identify individuals with a mental illness quickly, share information efficiently, and coordinate efforts with the appropriate entities to provide these individuals with mental health treatment and valuable resources they can benefit from,” said Deputy Commissioner of Health Services Lisa Asare.

Individuals who choose to participate in the program will receive a social determinants of health (SDOH) mental health screen. Based on the identified needs, they will be connected to community-based services, behavioral health treatment and a mental health assessment or evaluation. Individuals with criminal charges who are eligible to continue services with the behavioral health team and also meet legal and clinical criteria can apply for admission into a current or newly-created voluntary mental health diversion program track, integrated with the County Prosecutor’s office and courts. Successful completion of this diversion program may result in deferred disposition of the criminal charges against the individual.

As of 2020, approximately 20 percent of inmates in jails and 15 percent of inmates in state prisons are estimated to have a serious mental illness.

A serious mental illness is defined as a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder that causes serious functional impairment that has substantially interfered with or limited one or more major life activities (within the past year) of an individual 18 years old or over.

The target population for the pilot program are defendants charged on a complaint-warrant, arrested, and incarcerated in the county jail and released on pretrial monitoring. These individuals are subject to CJR, including the Public Safety Assessment (PSA). They are awaiting a pre-trial first appearance in the jail. Typically, within 48 hours, defendants are issued an order by a judge releasing them from the jail and into the community.

“Releasing individuals without addressing their mental health needs is counterproductive. We know that in these cases, time is of the essence. Identifying mental health needs as early as possible is crucial to intervening and effecting positive outcomes, which not only benefits the individual but the community they are returning to,” said Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services Assistant Commissioner Valerie Mielke.

The program will include supervision by a Judiciary diversion officer, case management by the behavioral team and oversight by a judge.