MAYS LANDING - Atlantic County will host a two-year pilot program to help those who have served in the military to get help rather than go to jail when substance abuse and mental health issues lead to criminal activity.

"Unfortunately, the strains of war can lead to substance abuse, mental health problems and other issues that sometimes end in criminal activity," state Attorney General Paula Dow said in announcing the program Wednesday. "I am proud to announce we are addressing this issue."

About 6 percent of those in the criminal justice system are veterans or active military, state Parole Board Chairman James Plousis said.

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Atlantic County was chosen because it has one of the largest veteran populations in the state, and because of the amount of cooperation here, Dow said.

"I thought of no better place to start this program than South Jersey, and specifically Atlantic County," she said.

"This is something that is very near and dear to my heart," said Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel, who shared the story of a young man arrested after having drug problems.

Before help could be given, Housel received a call that the man had died of a drug overdose.

Some often return from war "with invisible wounds," said Steve Fishbein, of the Department of Human Services. "This sometimes causes entanglements with the criminal justice system."

With the pilot program, once defendants are proved to be veterans, reservists or active military, they will be evaluated by a licensed clinician from the county's Jewish Family Services, Dow explained.

The prosecutor and defense attorney would then be given the evaluation. The final decision would be at the prosecutor's discretion, and would include strict guidelines to follow for counseling or treatment rather than incarceration.

"This program is not intended as a way for veterans to get preferential treatment," Dow said.

"There's no easy solution," said Raymond Zawacki, deputy commissioner for Veterans Affairs. "Veterans who become involved in the criminal justice system deserve treatment that recognizes their sacrifices and also takes into account how stresses they endured during their time in uniform may have later led to their making unfortunate choices."

They will be better served by this "holistic vision of the justice system represented by this pilot program," Deputy Public Defender Robert Moran said.

Joseph Levin, secretary of the Atlantic County Bar Association, said his group and those attorneys he has spoken with "wholeheartedly support the program."

"The veterans honorably served us," he said. "And the program provides lawyers and others the opportunity to serve them."

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