New Jersey Aims to Divert Low-Level Offenders Suffering from Psychiatric Issues

What options are available for criminal defendants suffering from a mental health condition?

Criminal laws are of course designed as punitive measures to ensure the safety and security of society as a whole. For some offenders, however, a stint behind bars will do very little to curtail the true underlying cause of their unlawful tendencies: psychiatric disorder. For some sufferers of a mental health condition, the disease manifests to cause drug dependency and abuse – which in turn leads to various other criminal activities (e.g., theft, prostitution, drug sales). For others, psychiatric disturbances cause erratic behavior, loss of impulse control, and a bevy of other symptoms perhaps treatable with medicine and therapy as opposed to incarceration.

Fortunately, the New Jersey legislature has taken heed of these emerging realities by awarding $150,000 each to the counties of Gloucester, Hunterdon and Warren to help divert defendants who would benefit psychiatric treatment rather than imprisonment. The funds will be used to help contract with private psychiatric service providers, and are designed to help counties save money from the soaring costs of incarceration. If an offender is able to adhere to the terms of his or her case plan and completes treatment on time, the underlying criminal offense will be dismissed and will not remain a part of the offender’s criminal history.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Network, the number of mentally ill individuals in jail far exceeds the number of those in treatment. In a statement by TAN:

[New Jersey jails] are required to house hundreds of thousands of seriously mentally ill inmates. In many cases, they are unable to provide them with psychiatric medications. The use of other options, such as solitary confinement or restraining devices, is sometimes necessary and may produce a worsening of symptoms. Yet, when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, the prison and jail officials are blamed….

Based on estimates, there are approximately ten times more mentally ill individuals in jail nationwide than in psychiatric treatment facilities. In a statement by Attorney General Hoffman, “[p]roviding these services to low-level criminal defendants with a diagnosed mental disorder is not only a cost-effective alternative to prison, but research consistently shows it reduces recidivism.”

If you are facing recent criminal charges and would like to discuss your options, please contact a New Jersey criminal defense attorney today!