Diversion Program Would Help Keep Mentally Ill Out of Jail

Bill would establish crisis-intervention training for law enforcement to reduce number of mentally ill people arrested or in court system

NJ Spotlight

By Lilo H. Stainton

Nonviolent offenders with mental illness could be diverted away from New Jersey’s mainstream criminal justice system and into a rehabilitation program designed to provide treatment for their psychiatric disorder, under an initiative envisioned by a longtime Democratic Senator that also reflects the goals of a growing national movement.

Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) said she plans to introduce comprehensive legislation next week to create a new program that would involve specific crisis-intervention training for law enforcement to reduce the number of mentally ill individuals arrested. It would also create a process to help the court system identify and assist perpetrators who would benefit from behavioral health services, as well as call for additional coordination between the state’s mental health officials and criminal justice officials. Law enforcement would have discretion in deciding who is appropriate for diversion, she said.

According to federal data released by Turner’s office, more than half of the men — and nearly three-quarters of the women — incarcerated in the United States are mentally ill. Nearly one in four have been in jail three or more times. In New Jersey, some 17,000 adults and youth are held in the Department of Correction’s 13 institutions.

“Laws are created to protect society, and this one would do that on many levels,” Turner said. “If people go into a jail cell with mental illness, they come out of the jail cell with mental illness.” Instead, she said her program would give law enforcement new tools to address someone in a psychiatric crisis and also provide “much needed treatment to some of the most vulnerable among us so that they can move forward with productive, lawful lives.”

The proposal echoes the efforts of the Stepping Up Initiative, a nationwide campaign led by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Council of State Governments Justice Center, National Association of Counties, American Psychiatric Foundation, and numerous law enforcement associations and behavioral health organizations. According to the group, 2 million seriously mentally ill individuals are jailed each year.

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Source: JusticeCenter

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