Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn A. Murray announced today that the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, working with officials in the judicial system, the Public Defender’s Office and mental health experts, is launching an initiative designed to divert non-violent offenders with a history of a diagnosed mental illness to treatment programs as either an alternative to incarceration or in conjunction with incarceration.
Modeled after a similar program already in place in Union County, the Essex County initiative seeks to identify individuals with a history of mental illness when they have contact with the criminal justice system. Their condition will be assessed and they will be linked to appropriate services in the community. The goal is to reduce the likelihood of these individuals escalating to more serious offenses, to create a path where individuals can get long term treatment and ultimately reduce the recidivism rate among this population.
The program is being coordinated by Assistant Prosecutor Jessica Apostolou and Assistant Prosecutor Magdalen Czykier, under the direction of Chief Assistant Prosecutor Keith Harvest.
Those eligible for the program will be selected on a case-by-case basis but they must be residents of Essex County who are charged with a crime that was committed in the county. Defendants must have what is known as an Axis I diagnosis such as schizophrenia or bipolar disease. The mental illness must have played a role in the crime and the defendant cannot have a history of committing violent crimes. Individuals with traumatic brain injuries or intellectual disabilities will be granted admission into the program under a different set of criteria.
The Essex County initiative involves a cooperative effort among all the stakeholders in the criminal justice system. The initiative, which has been in the works for eight months, is officially getting off the ground this month. Training sessions will be held with assistant prosecutors on issues related to this effort. Specifically, they will receive training on civil commitment, competency, insanity, diminished capacity and diversionary programs.
The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office worked closely with the Public Defender’s Office to get input regarding the eligibility criteria, consent documents and referral procedures.
With the Public Defender’s Office, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office also met with jail staff regarding treatment of inmates with diagnosed mental illness. In addition, training programs were sponsored for mental health professionals.
Nationwide statistics indicate that roughly 25 percent of inmates in state prisons and county jails suffer from a recent history of mental disorder.
“A significant number of individuals who come in contact with the criminal justice system here in Essex County have a history of mental illness. Often they end up incarcerated because they have not taken necessary medication or they are not receiving the treatment they need. The goal of this initiative is to link these individuals to appropriate resources and divert them from the criminal justice system in cases where treatment is more appropriate,’’ said Acting Essex County Prosecutor Murray.
“We have spent the last several months identifying the services available in the community and developing a strategy to connect defendants with those services,’’ said Acting Prosecutor Murray. “Many times a judge recognizes a particular case raises significant mental health issues but may not be familiar with the appropriate services. By mapping out the services, we stand ready to recommend to the judge that a particular defendant should receive certain services.’’
Acting Prosecutor Murray said she considers this part of the Office’s core mission. “Our job as prosecutors is not simply to send people to prison but to seek justice. In some cases, justice includes treatment,’’ she said.