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New Jersey mental health diversion plan draws pushback

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(The Center Square) — Critics are blasting a New Jersey proposal to allow criminals to be diverted to mental health treatment instead of prison, saying it would give dangerous suspects a “get out of jail free” card.

A bill approved by the state Senate on Monday would allow people who have committed nonviolent offenses and have a diagnosis of a mental disorder to be eligible to enter a statewide mental health diversion program.

The new program would be available to people who have committed nonviolent offenses and who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder or allegedly committed a “presumptively ineligible offense,” according to the bill’s sponsors. Those convicted of first-degree crimes such as murder and rape would be barred from participating.

But critics said the Democratic-led proposal would give criminals a free pass and jeopardize public safety.

State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Montville, said the measure would give state prosecutors “unbridled authority to divert violent criminals away from the criminal justice system without jail and without a judge.”

“Under the bill, there would be no jail time, even for most violent crimes, the offender’s record would be eligible for expungement, and there would be no limit to the number of times an individual could reenter the program,” he said in a statement.

“This legislation will put public safety at risk and dramatically weaken the justice system for victims of crimes,” he added.

Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed the plan in November at the request of the bill’s sponsor, citing concerns that suspects convicted of sexual offenses under Megan’s Law would be eligible to participate in the program. The Democrat called for “modest revisions” to make those individuals “categorically ineligible” from participation.

In his veto message, Murphy said he shares the view of the bill’s sponsors “that mental health issues should not be unnecessarily criminalized, and that efforts should be made to increase opportunities for appropriate treatment while ensuring public safety.”

Lawmakers recently amended the bill to prohibit people convicted of major felonies, such as aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping and endangering the welfare of children, from participating in the program.

The New Jersey Bar Association backed the changes, which said in a recent statement that it would “readdresses the way these individuals are treated to address the cause of the issue and not the effect, ultimately reducing recidivism and improving the quality of life for all involved.”

“The bill is a good start towards providing a holistic approach to address mental health and move away from criminalizing behaviors that can be corrected with the proper services,” the association said.

The Democratic-controlled state Assembly would still need to approve the proposal before heading to Murphy’s desk for consideration.

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