The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office (“BCPO”) has instituted a Veterans Diversion Program (“VDP”) in Bergen County. Under the VDP, as codified in the New Jersey Criminal Code at N.J.S.A. 2C:43-23 to 2C:43-31, veterans who are charged with certain non-violent crimes may be eligible for diversion to rehabilitative treatment in lieu of the traditional criminal justice process. The program involves intensive supervision and monitoring of a veteran’s treatment by an applicable treatment provider, the Veterans Administration (“VA”), and the BCPO. Participants must meet all diversion requirements to remain in the VDP, and the program ordinarily must be successfully completed within one year from the date of diversion. Upon successful completion of the VDP as detailed below, the participant may have their charges dismissed.
To be eligible for the VDP, the applicant must be an active or former member of the United States armed forces who has been discharged or released from active service under conditions other than dishonorable, and the charges must have some causal relation to their military service. Only non-violent, third and fourth degree crimes are eligible for diversion under this program; veterans charged with more serious, violent crimes, or who were previously convicted of a violent crime, will be deemed ineligible for VDP participation. In addition, offenses involving domestic violence are presumptively ineligible for diversion. See N.J.S.A. 2C:43-26b for more detail on charges that are eligible for diversion. The BCPO retains sole discretion over who is admitted into the VDP.
The first step in determining eligibility for the VDP is verification of a defendant’s current or former veteran status. It is incumbent upon a defendant, with assistance of counsel, to provide documentation or information that verifies the defendant’s veteran status. Typically, this can be presented in the form of a validly issued Common Access Card (CAC), DD-214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, retired ID card, government agency-issued Veterans Identification Card, or other acceptable documentary evidence indicating former service status.
After service is verified, a defendant must be deemed “eligible” for entry into the VDP. To be eligible, a defendant must have some mental illness or condition that may have caused or contributed to his or her commission of the offense. A “mental illness” is defined under the New Jersey Veterans Diversion Statute as “a mental disorder classified within the current version of the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), including, but not limited to, anxiety disorders, cognitive disorders, adjustment disorders, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)."
While a defendant may be deemed eligible for the VDP, the decision to accept the defendant into the program is at the sole discretion of the BCPO after considering a number of factors, including, but not limited to:
- the extent of causative or contributory relationship between the person’s diagnosed or apparent mental illness and the commission of the offense;
- the amenability of the defendant to fulfilling the VDP conditions;
- the nature and circumstances surrounding the commission of the offense;
- the desires of any victim;
- the person’s history of prior convictions;
- the likelihood that diversion will promote the person’s recovery, prevent future criminal behavior, and ensure public safety; and
- the availability of other dispositions, such as Pre-Trial Intervention or Drug Court, that may better suit the needs of the defendant, any victims or the public.
A defendant accepted into the VDP shall agree in writing to a number of terms under the New Jersey Veterans Diversion Statute, in addition to conditions set forth by the BCPO. Specifically, a defendant must agree to:
- participate in case management and mental health services through an applicable veterans diversion resource entity, and comply with any recommended course of treatment;
- authorize any case management or treatment provider to release periodic status reports to the BCPO regarding the admitted defendant’s participation;
- cooperate with case management service providers to procure housing, education and employment services, where appropriate;
- pay restitution for damages resulting from the offense;
- refrain from the use of alcohol or illegal narcotics, or from frequenting any place where such items are sold or used;
- refrain from the possession or use of firearms or other weapons;
- surrender any firearms carry permits, purchase permits and FPICs;
- refrain from further criminal activity;
- refrain from any contact with a victim of the offense;
- cooperate with a designated mentor assigned by a veterans diversion resource entity;
- agree to the tolling of time for purposes of the defendant’s right to a speedy trial while the defendant is participating in the VDP;
- advise the BCPO of any change in address or change in case management or treatment provider; and
- abide by any other terms and conditions set forth by the BCPO in the interest of the defendant’s recovery and public safety.
Because eligibility for the VDP is predicated upon an illness or condition causing or contributing to a defendant’s commission of an offense, the defendant must seek and participate in mental health or addiction counseling and treatment as part of the VDP. A participating defendant, with the assistance of counsel, must take steps to receive necessary treatment with the VA. At this time, the VA Secaucus Vet Center (located at 110A Meadowlands Parkway, Secaucus, New Jersey 07094) and the Bergen County Office of Veterans Services (located at One Bergen County Plaza, 2nd Floor, Hackensack, New Jersey 07601) have agreed to partner with the BCPO to provide social service support and referrals, including referrals for clinical assessment for potentially qualified veterans. Additionally, treatment may be supplemented or, in limited cases, substituted through private mental health or addiction counseling and treatment at the discretion of the BCPO
As a condition of entry in the VDP, periodic counseling and treatment updates must be provided in writing to the BCPO through counsel or by the defendant. It is the responsibility of the defendant to make sure that these updates or reports are forwarded by the VA or other treatment provider.
Under the New Jersey Veterans Diversion Statute, the court shall review the status of deferred prosecutions under the VDP at least every six months from the date a defendant was admitted into the VDP and, thereafter, every six months until completion of the VDP.
A veteran who successfully completes the terms and conditions of this program to the satisfaction of the Prosecutor, continues to make progress with mental health and/or substance abuse treatment, and has not been the subject of any subsequent criminal charges may have his or her charges dismissed. If the defendant’s charges are dismissed after successful completion of the VDP, the defendant may apply for expungement following the issuance of an order of dismissal.
If, at any time after admission into the VDP, the BCPO determines that a participating defendant has failed to comply with any term or condition of the diversion agreement, the BCPO may notify the court that it is prepared to proceed with the prosecution and the court shall schedule court proceedings as appropriate.