The Veterans Diversion Program: A Unique Opportunity for Service Members in the Criminal Court System
Although a prison sentence is sometimes considered necessary for individuals who have been charged with crimes, the reality is that spending time in prison often leads to recidivism, and a lot of people can benefit from a criminal justice system that emphasizes treatment and rehabilitation over punishment and incarceration. The Veterans Diversion Program (VDP) exists so that active or former military members can get much-needed mental health treatment and counseling instead of being sent to prison when they are charged with a crime in New Jersey. Anyone who has previously served in the military, or who is currently serving in the military, may be eligible to have their criminal case diverted into the VDP. Many county prosecutor’s offices in New Jersey have their own Veterans Diversion Program, and the prosecutor’s office makes a determination about whether a veteran qualifies for admittance into the program. Not only does the VDP allow a veteran charged with a crime to maintain their freedom and avoid prison and a criminal conviction on their record, but it also gives the veteran an opportunity to get treatment by a mental health provider. To learn more about the Veterans Diversion Program in New Jersey, keep reading.
What is the Veterans Diversion Program?
The Veterans Diversion Program (VDP) was created by the New Jersey Legislature in 2017 so that military service members and veterans charged with certain criminal offenses would be able to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBI), alcohol or drug abuse issues, or other psychological or mental health disorders that are common to people who serve in the military. Moreover, since the treatment afforded by the VDP is offered at an early stage of the criminal justice process, there is a greater likelihood of success.
How the Veterans Diversion Program Works
When a person is charged with a crime, they usually go through the traditional criminal justice system and eventually have their case resolved during pre-trial proceedings or scheduled for trial in the Superior Court located in the county where they allegedly committed the offense, or in the Municipal Court located in the city or town where they allegedly committed the offense. Assuming no plea deal is reached with the prosecution, the trial goes on as planned and a jury ultimately decides whether the defendant is guilty. A guilty verdict at trial can result in the defendant being sentenced to prison time, fines, and more, depending on the nature of the offense and the degree of the charges.
What makes the Veterans Diversion Program so beneficial to the defendants who qualify is that their case is diverted from the standard legal system to an alternative sentencing program. Instead of facing a punitive outcome that often includes lengthy incarceration and heavy financial penalties, a defendant admitted into the VDP is able to stay out of jail as long as they meet the program requirements. In this way, the VDP is similar to Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) and Drug Court, which are other diversionary programs available to eligible defendants in particular contexts. Unlike some programs like conditional discharge and PTI, however, the VDP is not limited to first-time offenders; a person can have multiple charges diverted into the VDP over the course of their life, if necessary.
What is Involved if You get into the Veterans Diversion Program
Once admitted into the program, the service member or veteran will need to see a psychologist or other type of mental health provider, as well as attending counseling, showing up for mandatory court hearings, and possibly undergoing treatment for alcohol, drug, or other substance abuse issues. Additionally, the person will be subject to intensive supervision by the prosecutor’s office, the Veterans Administration (VA), and the court to make sure that they are making sufficient progress in their treatment. Other conditions will also be imposed on the individual, such as making financial restitution to their victims, refraining from drinking alcohol, avoiding the possession of guns or other firearms, and staying out of any further legal trouble.
It is important to understand that if the defendant fails to meet the conditions of the VDP, the prosecutor’s office may notify the court that they have decided to proceed with the criminal case. This means that the defendant could face a trial and, if convicted, a prison sentence.
Advantages of the Veterans Diversion Program for Military Members Facing Criminal Charges
Many criminal charges in New Jersey bring with them the possibility of jail or prison time, and some criminal convictions result in automatic prison sentences. One of the big advantages of the Veterans Diversion Program for defendants facing criminal charges is that they can avoid incarceration and instead get the rehabilitative treatment they need to improve their lives going forward.
Although the requirements of the VDP can be strict, it is still extremely beneficial for a defendant to receive mental health treatment while being allowed to maintain their freedom in lieu of being incarcerated in a correctional facility. The program typically lasts for a minimum of six (6) months and a maximum of two (2) years. Once the defendant has successfully completed the Veterans Diversion Program, the original criminal charges can be dismissed. Additionally, the defendant would then be able to seek an expungement of the arrest and charges, either at the time the charges are dismissed by the prosecutor or at a later date.
Eligibility for the Veterans Diversion Program
Ultimately, the prosecutor’s office will determine whether the defendant is eligible for the Veterans Diversion Program. N.J.S.A. 2C:43-26 of the New Jersey Criminal Code sets forth the requirements for entrance into the VDP, as well as what may be required for successful completion of the program. The statute also stipulates who is eligible for admission into the program.
- Military Service member: In order to qualify for admission into the VDP, a defendant must be either a current or former service member in the military. This means active military and retired military, and it includes the National Guard.
- Mental Health Issue: Another requirement for admission into the VDP is that the military member has a qualifying mental condition that would benefit from psychological treatment or counseling. A determination about whether rehabilitative treatment is appropriate for the defendant is determined by the county prosecutor’s office before the case is diverted to the VDP. The prosecutor’s office will typically rely on the definition of “mental disorder” provided by the American Psychiatric Association, which includes cognitive disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Degree of Criminal Charge: Not all criminal charges are covered by the VDP. If the defendant has been charged with a first degree or second degree felony, they cannot apply for admission into the VDP. That’s because only third and fourth degree crimes handled at the Superior Court level, and disorderly persons offenses and petty disorderly persons handled at the Municipal Court level, are eligible for this program.
- Type of Offense: Regardless of the degree of the criminal charge, a crime involving violence is not covered by the VDP. This means that if the defendant has been charged with third or fourth degree aggravated assault, they cannot gain admission into the VDP.
Active or Former Military Charged with a Crime in NJ?
If you are serving or previously served in the military and find yourself involved in the criminal justice system in New Jersey, it is important to speak with an attorney about the Veterans Diversion Program as an option for handling your case. Depending on the nature of the charges against you, getting knowledgeable legal counsel is a must because you may have multiple avenues toward getting the criminal charges dismissed and staying out of jail. At Proetta & Oliver, our team of criminal defense lawyers is highly familiar with, and experienced in, helping clients take advantage of diversionary programs like the Veterans Diversion Program.
From our local office in Jersey City, we have been protecting the rights and interests of military service members arrested in Hoboken, Jersey City, Weehawken, Kearny Bayonne, Union City, and throughout Hudson County for over a decade. For a free consultation regarding your case and potential eligibility for the Veterans Diversion Program, call our defense lawyers at (201) 793-8018 or send us a message online to get started.