After serving in the Army for five years, Cape May County resident Tim Letts got injured, developed post-traumatic stress disorder and was discharged. That’s when things started going downhill.

“I got out and thought that I needed to escape my reality,” Letts said. “I never wanted to get out, so I started doing drugs to mask the pain, and eventually that caught up with me. It catches up with pretty much everybody.”

He picked up charges for drugs and forgery, he said. But then, as his case started winding its way through the court system, he met county Assistant Prosecutor Mike Mazur and Prosecutor’s Office Lt. Joe Landis, who run the county’s Veterans Diversion Program.

The statewide program, which took effect in 2017 after it was signed into law by former Gov. Chris Christie, gives veterans with low-level, nonviolent offenses an opportunity to have their charges dismissed by participating in therapy and treatment and connecting with a mentor. South Jersey law enforcement officials say it’s an opportunity for a vulnerable population who might fall through the cracks of the justice system to address any mental health and substance abuse issues they may have in an effort to move forward.

Letts, 30, is one of three graduates from the Cape May program; there are currently three people enrolled and two more about to be admitted, officials said. Cumberland County has two active participants. Atlantic County has the highest participation rate in South Jersey, with 14 enrolled in the program and three graduates, court records show.

The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office declined to be interviewed for this story.

In Cumberland County, officials are working to get the word out about their program, Trial Chief Carl W. Cavagnaro said.

“We’re trying to do everything possible to have as wide a net as possible,” Cavagnaro said, explaining that when summonses are issued, there’s a box for law enforcement to check off if the person is a veteran, and the judge for the Criminal Justice Process Court asks everyone who appears whether they served in the military.

“I think it’s important because we want to give back to people that donated their time and possibly put their life in danger for the country,” he said. “They’re veterans and they should get help, especially if there’s a nexus between their current criminal problems, mental illness and a disability. It seems to me an appropriate program to give back to these people.”

There are three requirements for acceptance into the program, Mazur said. An applicant must first be a veteran with an honorable, general or other-than-honorable discharge, they have to have an eligible offense — generally any third- or fourth-degree offense, but this varies by county — and a mental health diagnosis such as anxiety, depression or PTSD.

Once accepted, officials tailor the program to each individual’s needs depending on their struggles with mental health or substance abuse and the nature of the offense, Mazur said.

Connecting all three South Jersey programs is John Walter, a veteran’s justice outreach specialist. He works as a liaison between officials and the participants, making sure veterans get linked to care, then tracking their progress and reporting back to officials, he said.

In Atlantic and Cape May counties, Walter is present at status hearings, where veterans go before Superior Court Judge Bernard E. DeLury Jr. for regular check-ins and get “a little pep talk or scolding depending on what they needed,” Walter said.

Because of issues that veterans struggle with, like PTSD, they can come into contact with law enforcement more often than the average person, he said. The program can help stabilize their mental health and get them treatment.

“It’s a way for them to address their mental health and address that charge at the same time,” Walter said. “It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. A lot of the time, the veterans do more and spend more time than they would have if they just would have taken the time.”

It’s a win-win situation, Walter said, because the veteran gets the treatment they need, the courts don’t have another person in jail and, often, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs picks up the cost of treatment.

DeLury, the presiding judge for the criminal division of the Atlantic and Cape May Vicinage, said he acts as an integrated part of the person’s diversion and, hopefully, recovery. He asks participants what branch they served in, their military occupational specialty or rating, their rank and where they were stationed.

“I think the Veterans Diversion Program helps a veteran who has found himself in the cross hairs of the criminal justice system identify what he’s done wrong, be truthful about it and then seek the help that he’ll need in order to avoid future difficulties,” he said.

The program can run from six months to two years, but the average completion time in Cape May County is about a year, Landis said. But if it doesn’t go smoothly, officials are there to help.

“If they should happen to relapse, or fall off because they lose track of what’s going on and stop going to treatment for a little bit, we don’t just discard anybody from the program,” Landis said. “We bring them in and kind of evaluate what’s going on with the VA and we try to get them back on track.”

Conversely, if participants gain traction and “lighten their pack” — cooperate with treatment, get a job, reunite with family, whatever they had difficulty with before — they can meet less frequently as they progress, DeLury said.

Since graduating, Letts bought a new car and drives for Uber. He can go to the gun range or shoot his bow and arrow, things he wouldn’t be able do if he hadn’t been through the program.

“There are still things in my life that I like to do that otherwise I definitely wouldn’t be able to, at least not for a few years and expungement,” Letts said. The program “allowed me to step back into life with a purpose, and that purpose has just flowed over to maintain the stability that the program has allowed me to find.”

Contact: 609-272-7241

mbilinski@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressMollyB

Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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