After riding his bike in and out of jail and a long battle with addiction and depression, Curtis Bowers Jr. said he knew he needed help.

He talked to therapists. But Bowers, 53, said it “seemed like the process wasn’t working.”

He eventually turned to the Addiction Recovery Support Group, a statewide program funded by the Department of Human Services, which referred him to the Essex and Morris Mental Health Association, Inc. Once he contacted the Mental Health Association, Bowers entered a diversion program for people in the criminal justice system.

And it was, according to Bowers, “life-changing.”

Most diversion programs are designed to minimize contact with the criminal justice system and keep people involved from arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.

“We’re talking about real … serious issues that are going on that have affected my life, and my life is falling apart all the time,” Bowers said. “But now that I’m learning to cope more with myself and when I’m going through something, I know that it’s better to come and talk about it with my therapist, my manager, and they’ll help me as best they can … So, you know , it completely changed my life.”

Essex and Morris Mental Health Association, Inc., along with Oaks Integrated Care of Camden County and Legacy Treatment Services of Middlesex County, received $1.25 million in state funding to develop pilot mental health treatment programs for people recently released from care with severe mental illness. The programs launched in these three counties are a continuation of a similar pilot project established in Morris County in January, according to press release from the Department of Social Services. In addition, several district attorney’s offices already have mental health treatment programs. But to date, there is no statewide diversion program for people who have committed non-violent crimes. State lawmakers are reworking legislation that would create a statewide program, according to Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).

Legislating mental health diversion

The legislation currently under consideration by lawmakers create a statewide mental illness diversion program. People who have committed non-violent disorderly conduct or minor crimes will be placed in the case management system and provided with mental health services. Under the bill, a person eligible for the program must also have a previous diagnosis of mental illness or other signs of mental illness.

But the legislation in its current form will be revised by January, according to Ruiz and her staff. “To just come up with it (the bill), we went back to the drawing board,” Ruiz said.

Similar bills that have been introduced by Ruiz in previous sessions include mental illness diversion programs for people involved in the criminal justice system. But none these measures were signed into law.

What does sabotage do

According to A., there is no single approach to sabotage the report from Vera Institute of Justicea national organization working to end the overcriminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, immigrants, and the poor.

Colored people re-presented in the nation’s jails and prisons, while white people are underrepresented, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that researches and advocates for criminal justice reform.

“When we think about diversion programs, we think of it as an alternative to incarceration and something that could be put in place to address some of the root causes … that would lead them to commit a crime or lead them to be incarcerated,” Mustafa Ali-Smith said. , co-author of the report and program officer for the Prosecutorial Reform Initiative at the Vera Institute.

Lack of food and shelter, mental health crises and unemployment can be some of these root causes, according to Ali-Smith.

“So diversion programs for people who are facing these kinds of mental health crises, instead of arresting them, or instead of prosecuting them … and sentencing them to prison, we’re saying we want to get these people into the community organizations to be able to provide them with the resources they need to help with those mental health crises,” he said.

Among the 12,138 people in the custody of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, 2,757 have at least one mental health diagnosis, according to Amy Z. Quinn, director of public information for the New Jersey DOC.

Programs and gaps

According to Renee T. White, supervising assistant U.S. attorney in the office and director of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, the mental health diversion program isn’t just for people who have committed non-violent crimes. mental health and veterans diversion programs.

People apply for the program through their attorney and must go through a multi-tiered vetting process that includes legal, clinical and medical clearances. According to White, about 60 people have graduated from diversionary programs.

She noted that there is a “statutory mandate” to divert veterans, so every county should have a program to address the issue. But the mental health diversion program is optional at this point.

The Warren County Prosecutor’s Office operates a mental health program, according to Kelly Shelton, program manager and assistant prosecutor. Shelton’s is a post-conviction program, meaning the person must plead guilty to the charges, she said. Prosecutors will usually drop the charges to which the defendant is going to plead, but in some cases where the defendant is facing state prison, prosecutors can force the defendant to plead guilty to the charges but “withdraw state prison.” »

Warren County’s program is different from Ocean County’s, Shelton said. If someone has a serious mental illness that has led them to commit a crime, the program tries to rehabilitate them through mental health treatment so they can become a part of the community.

But gaps in the system remain a concern, according to Shelton.

“I would say there are three real gaps,” she said. “One thing is services. There are not enough therapists and psychiatrists to treat everyone who needs help.” The second problem is the lack of public housing programs for people with mental illness and the lack of transportation options in Warren County, according to Shelton Warren, one of the most rural counties in the state.

“And the third would be funding the program because I can only take so many people … So I would say the lack of funding limits the number of people we can take into the program.”

Cumberland County does not have a chartered mental health court, but does have a county mental health court “working group” which stems from the attorney general’s revised directive on the use of force, according to Jennifer Webb-McRae, Cumberland County District Attorney. The attorney general’s directive created task forces in all 21 counties to review policies, programs and protocols to make the county’s response more effective in treating people with disabilities or those in mental health crisis.

Shortly thereafter, the county received a federal grant for a de-escalation, treatment and case management program for people with mental illness or substance use disorders who interact with police. Social workers will be stationed at the local police department, training police officers in crisis intervention and providing on-call crisis response throughout the county to assist police.

“You could create more mental health courts across the state, which is one solution. It’s very time-consuming, and I would argue and argue that our time and effort is better spent working on front-end systems, on co-respondent models, on developing mental health strategies that actually meet people’s needs, rather than on 8:30 to 4: 30 working hours, but when they have a crisis,” Webb-McRae said. “And the joint defendant model is a way to do that.”

As far as Bowers was concerned, the mental health diversion program was still helpful. He is back in school and wants to become a certified recovery specialist. “I want to be able to help somebody come in and get better,” he said.

“In all my 53 years on this planet, even when I was at home with my family, I was never at peace with myself,” he added. “And my life is now in a good direction.”

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