Burlington County officials Friday announced the launch of a program that will enable some veterans charged with nonviolent offenses to be diverted into counseling or treatment programs instead of criminal prosecution.
The Veterans Diversion Program, established in legislation signed into law in May by Gov. Chris Christie, aims to aid veterans and active-duty service members accused of nonviolent or low-level offenses who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other service-related mental health problems.
The legislation, largely crafted by state Sen. Diane Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park, and three other state legislators, permits police officers and prosecutors to ask municipal and county courts to postpone court proceedings so eligible veterans or service members can get mental health services.
On Friday, Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina unveiled the county’s program, noting that the county has one of the largest populations of veterans and active service members in the state due to the presence of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
“We owe our veterans and active armed forces members a tremendous debt of gratitude,” Coffina said. “Their sacrifices on our behalf have earned them the opportunity to seek treatment rather than face a criminal conviction when they commit relatively minor, nonviolent offenses.”
To be eligible for the program, a qualifying defendant must make an admission of guilt and agree to participate in treatment. They are also required to pay restitution for any damages related to an offense; refrain from drug or alcohol use, possession or use of firearms and any other criminal activity; and cooperate with a mentor assigned through the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
After a minimum of six months, if the prosecutor is satisfied the defendant has made progress and complied with the terms of the agreement, the prosecutor can move to dismiss the charges.
Unlike the state’s drug court, another diversionary program for nonviolent offenders, the proposed diversion for veterans could be performed multiple times.
The prosecutor will have the sole discretion to determine if an eligible veteran or service member qualifies and is admitted into the program, according to the Prosecutor’s Office.
Factors that will be considered include the person’s criminal history, the nature and circumstances of the offense, and the likelihood that treatment will be successful, officials said. Diversion will not be approved if the victim objects, according to the Prosecutor’s Office.
“This program affords a compassionate way for the veteran or service member to address underlying mental health issues that may have contributed to their aberrant conduct,” Coffina said. “However, individuals admitted to the program will still be held accountable for their conduct.”
Coffina said his office will have oversight to ensure any restitution is paid, that the defendant adheres to the recommended treatment plan, and complies with other conditions for at least six months and possibly up to two years before charges are dismissed.
Coffina issued a directive Friday to local police chiefs that they ask individuals about their military status and consider whether they may be eligible for the program before a criminal complaint is filed.
Allen spent years pushing the legislation to permit the creation of the program.
She said she was pleased to hear that Burlington County was moving quickly to create the program, although not surprised given Coffina’s drive.
“We’ve got a really great prosecutor who is really active and on the cutting edge, and this is the perfect place for this program,” she said.
“He came to me and said we’re really not being fair to our veterans,” she said. “It’s amazing how many veterans are being pulled into our courts. Someone who has post traumatic stress disorder is being put in a prison cell. That’s not going to help. We owe it to our veterans to give them a better shot.”
The law directed the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to create a directory of existing federal and state case management and mental health program locations for veterans to be referred to under the diversion program.
The Burlington County Division of Military and Veterans Services will help veterans determine their eligibility and to apply for benefits and facilitate their referral for treatment, officials said.
“I’m really proud to see our Prosecutor’s Office embrace this program,” said Walt Tafe, director of the Burlington County Department of Military and Veteran’s Services. “Recognizing the difficulties our veterans have when returning home with the burden of terrible memories that trigger PTSD is critical to their future success. We are honored to be part of their team.”
For more information, visit the Prosecutor’s Office Website at burlpros.org.