Veterans Diversion Program
According to the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, 20% of the veterans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from either major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 25% of veterans showed signs of substance abuse disorder. Furthermore, more than half of the veterans involved with the criminal justice system have either substance-abuse disorders or mental health problems like PTSD, depression, anxiety, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Clearly, action must be taken to rehabilitate veterans charged with crimes rather than place them in prison, a system that cannot adequately treat and may only exacerbate mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders. The Veterans Diversion Program, or VDP, begins to address this urgent issue by focusing on rehabilitation, not retribution, for veterans who commit non-violent offenses.
Signed into law on May 1, 2017 under N.J.S.A. 2C:43-22, the Veterans Diversion Program provides eligible veterans with court-supervised mental health treatment rather than subjecting them to criminal prosecution. Veterans are provided with counseling and mental health and substance abuse treatment as well as mentoring from other veterans from the same branch of service. Veterans are required to appear before the court regularly, and the court will review their VDP status every six months. They are supervised by the county’s Prosecutor’s Office, the VA, applicable treatment providers, and their assigned mentors to ensure they are fulfilling the requirements and adhering to the rules of the program. The program takes between 6 months and 2 years to complete, but veterans usually move through VDP in about 1 year. On completion of the program, charges are dismissed and expunged. The dismissal of charges will be reported to the State Bureau of ID for criminal history files to determine future eligibility of other diversionary programs, but the dismissal will not be conviction for the purposes of disqualifications or disabilities imposed by law upon convictions of disorderly persons (DPs) or other crimes.
Veterans granted a discharge other than dishonorable and diagnosed with a mental illness as defined in the DSM that caused or contributed to the commission of the offense may be eligible for entry into the Veterans Diversion Program. Offenses can be grouped into three categories: eligible offenses, presumptively ineligible offenses, and ineligible offenses. Eligible offenses are non-violent third and fourth degree crimes, DPs, and petty disorderly persons offenses (PDPs). Presumptively ineligible offenses, namely charges of domestic violence, generally disqualify the veteran from admission into VDP, but can be overcome at the discretion of the prosecutor after consultation with the victim. Finally, ineligible offenses include any violent crimes and second or first degree offenses, as well as offenses committed by veterans with past convictions of violent crimes and second or first degree offenses. However, sole discretion in granting admission to the Veterans Diversion Program is given to the prosecutor, who retains the ability to permit or deny any veteran, including those with an eligible offense. Prosecutors consider many factors in determining the veteran’s eligibility for the Veteran’s Diversion Program, including the impact of mental illness on the crime, the veteran’s willingness to comply with VDP requirements, the nature of the crime, the victim’s wishes, prior convictions, the likelihood of rehabilitation, and the availability of other programs.
The Veterans Diversion Program can be an effective tool for veterans because it addresses the mental illnesses connected to the offense, rather than exacerbating mental health disorders in prison and increasing the likelihood of second and third offenses. Through help from government agencies, local law enforcement, and non-profit organizations, VDP provides resources and aids to veterans and saves taxpayers the cost of incarceration. Finally, VDP conserves public resources by avoiding criminal prosecution for non-violent crimes. It is clear that the Veterans Diversion Program is the most effective and responsible way to respond to non-violent offenses committed by veterans, and that doing so will not only relieve over-burdened court systems and save valuable time and money, but will allow veterans to recover from service-incurred mental illnesses and prevent future offenses.