NJ Senate and Assembly Pass Legislation Creating a Mental Health Diversion Program in Line with NJPA’s Position

The New Jersey Psychiatric Association today applauded the New Jersey Senate and Assembly for taking swift final action on a measure to move individuals in mental health crisis away from the criminal justice system and into appropriate treatment and follow-up case management services.

The measure, S-524 and A-1700, creates a Mental Health Diversion Program to direct eligible persons away from the criminal justice system and into appropriate case management and mental health services. The Mental Health Diversion Program would be for eligible persons accused of crimes for whom mental health treatment is a reasonable alternative to confinement or other criminal sanctions.

“This important policy initiative will ensure that New Jersey residents who suffer from mental illness will receive greater access to treatment and services and will be directed away from the criminal justice system,” said Dr. Stephen Mateka, President of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association. “Our hope is that this measure will help the courts to distinguish calculated, malicious acts from involuntary ones arising from mental illness.

The NJPA President praised the efforts of Senators Ruiz and Cunningham, and Assemblymembers Quijano, Mukherji, and Atkins and said without their hard work and dedication, this important measure would not have become a reality. Dr. Mateka added that mental illness among incarcerated individuals is a significant issue in the Garden State.

Effective mental health diversion will provide superior results at a lower cost. It will also enhance public safety by making jail and prison space available for violent offenders. Recidivism rates go down when mental illness is properly addressed.

Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics indicate that there are 10 times the number of individuals with serious mental illness (SMI) in prisons/jails than there are in hospitals. This amounts to 14 – 25% of all inmates. The DOJ statistics found the most common diagnosis is a substance use disorder, with the second most common being major depressive disorder. The DOJ survey showed that over a third of all inmates have a prior history of mental illness before entering a prison or jail setting. It found that suicide is the leading cause of death in jails and the second leading cause of death in prisons nationwide. Other findings include racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in the justice system and have less access to mental health services. Their first encounter with mental health care is often only once incarcerated.

The NJPA commends the Legislature for taking up this important matter to create a specialized program to divert pre-trial detainees with SMI away from prison and legal turmoil to specialized hearings where the focus is on treatment, rehabilitation, and measures to decrease recidivism.

About NJPA
The New Jersey Psychiatric Association is a professional organization of over 900 NJ psychiatrists who specialize in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness and substance use disorders. The NJPA is a district branch of the American Psychiatric Association and is the official voice of organized psychiatry in NJ. Our mission is to serve our members’ professional practice needs, foster physician wellness as the foundation of successful practice, educate the public and lawmakers on the science of psychiatry, support the development of psychiatrists in training, promote the professional standards of psychiatric care and advocate to protect the interests of patients and their families.

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