NJ is asked to give war veterans help they need instead of prison
New Jersey is one of 10 states without a program that diverts veterans accused of crimes from the criminal-justice system into mental-health treatment, but it could be on the cusp of changing that under a bill up for final legislative approval.
Some people, though, are pushing for Gov. Chris Christie to conditionally veto the measure, hoping he’ll broaden it so it covers veterans accused of violent crimes and not limit help to treatment programs run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“It unnecessarily restricts admission to the VA-funded treatment programs and leaves many of the veterans and their loved ones, often times the ones that need the program the most, on the outside of the program looking in,” said paralegal Deborah McChesney.
“It could easily be amended, and we can cast a much wider net to get many more veterans out from underneath a conviction and really most importantly from going to prison and costing the taxpayers unnecessarily,” said Thomas Roughneen, an attorney and Army National Guard lieutenant colonel.
“The way that this bill is so narrowly drawn risks building a bridge to nowhere,” said Matthew Adams, a trustee for the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey.
The bill has been modified since its introduction to include veterans who didn’t serve in theaters of combat and specifically permit counties to operate more expansive diversion programs, as is done in Ocean County.
But it continues to limit eligibility to nonviolent petty disorderly offenses, disorderly persons offenses and crimes of the third or fourth degree, which has raised concerns
“We could argue it doesn’t go far enough. It’s a good first start. It will salvage veterans. And more importantly, it will save everybody involved money” by shifting costs from state prisons to the VA, said Robert McNulty Sr., government affairs chairman for the Vietnam Veterans of America New Jersey State Council.
The veterans who would be helped have mental disorders, primarily post-traumatic stress disorder, better helped in the health care system, said Dan Phillips, legislative liaison for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
“The people we want to divert, they’re really not culpable of those offenses and putting them into the criminal justice system is not helpful at all,” Phillips said. “They’re not really going to receive any treatment or case management, which is really what they need.”
Some former soldiers and their parents said the restrictions are unacceptable.
“Are we asking for a special pass? No, not at all. The last thing a veteran wants is a special pass,” said Robert Vicci, chief executive officer of VetREST. “But what we do need to see in our state and in the rest of our country are folks that know how to deal with the special needs of the veterans that are returning from a combat tour.”
Linda Horin of Eldora in Cape May County said her son, Nicholas, faces legal troubles rooted in his addiction to painkillers prescribed by his VA doctor – but couldn’t be helped under the proposal.
“He would not qualify, and he definitely needs help from the VA,” Horin said. “I think that instead of making the court system responsible, we need to make the VA system and the military responsible for these young men and women.”
Al Crincoli, of Forked River, said his son, Anthony, a former Army staff sergeant, faced three to five years in prison for failing to register hunting rifles and shotguns after resettling in New Jersey. He is instead participating in a diversion program run by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
“Any bill that gets passed that allows any case like that, not my son’s alone but any case like that, any bill that gets passed that would allow that to happen is a crime,” said Crincoli, who said under the bill poised for passage, his son wouldn’t have qualified in other New Jersey counties.
“But to take anybody in my mind that served our country and done what they did in those two environments, Afghanistan and Iraq, which are horrible, and even think about putting them in jail before we’ve exhausted every other option, is insane,” Crincoli said.
“Better to take our time and do something right than just rush through it for the sake of doing something that’s going to do nothing,” he said.