CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Acting Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Johnson readily admits he’s more familiar with putting people in jail than keeping them out.
However, as part of a new statewide program, Johnson’s office will be tasked with helping veterans with mental health issues avoid the criminal justice system if they are charged with a nonviolent, low-level offense.
Johnson and Assistant Prosecutor Michael Mazur, who will help run the program in the county, held an information session Wednesday afternoon. The program is set to go into effect Friday.
“The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office has been planning for some time to get ready for this,” Johnson told the crowd at the session.
The Veterans Diversion Program, which was established by a bill approved by Gov. Chris Christie in May, is aimed at connecting eligible veterans with agencies that provide mental health services. Upon completion of the program, which can take up to two years, veterans can have their criminal case dismissed and their arrest record expunged.
Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, a veteran who was deployed to Iraq, was one of the bill’s primary sponsors.
“What we wanted to make sure was (that) each county has something set up and in place to make sure that our veterans returning home, if they have PTSD, if they have other psychological disorders going on, that they aren’t just thrown in jail,” said Andrzejczak, who attended the information session.
Veterans charged with most violent crimes or first- and second-degree offenses will be ineligible to enroll in the program. Those who were dishonorably discharged also will not qualify.
Johnson said police officers will be required to ask people they arrest about their veteran status. If they are a veteran, law enforcement should inform them of the program and give them access to an application, he said.
“Not only are we treating the mental illness that generated the commission of the offense, we’re also assisting in making sure the record is wiped clean and the veteran is given a second chance,” Johnson said.
Mazur, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves, said he also hopes to connect veterans in the program with community-based organizations. He said he wants to set them on the path to success in their lives.
“It’s an extension of my duties as a soldier, and it serves to help those who have done so much for our country,” Mazur said.
Several veterans, including Joe Griffies, a local radio host and veterans advocate, raised questions and concerns about the program.
Griffies asked why the state does not have a veterans court similar to a program in Philadelphia. He said other states are ahead of New Jersey on issues relating to veterans, but he appreciates the new program.
“I think it is a good start,” Griffies said.