A program to assist military veterans who enter the court system has started in Essex County.
The Veterans Assistance Project is a combined effort of the Judiciary, the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Mental Health Services, to provide referrals to existing community services as well as mentors for veterans.
“Essex County has the largest caseload in the state, so we are pleased that veterans who appear in Superior Court or in the county's 22 municipal courts will be able to benefit from the Veterans Assistance Project," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said. "Our aim is to help veterans, who have sacrificed in defense of our country, get the assistance they need, and we will continue to work with other agencies and service organizations toward that end.”
The New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs will determine which veterans are assigned mentors. The mentors, active and retired veterans themselves, volunteer to work with defendants while their criminal cases are pending and afterward. They see that veterans receive assistance and try to help them avoid behaviors that may lead them back into the criminal justice system.
Essex County’s participation in the Veterans Assistance Project will be a coordinated effort across all of the court’s operating divisions that will include liaisons from the civil, criminal, family, municipal and probation divisions.
“The expansion of this program to Essex County, one of the state’s most populous, ensures that a key segment of our veterans’ community has access to this vital service,” said Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, the Adjutant General of New Jersey who oversees the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and serves as commander of the New Jersey National Guard.
“The addition of Essex County is one more step toward fulfilling our commitment to ultimately bring this program to every county in New Jersey,” Maj. Gen. Rieth said.
Some veterans return from military service with physical, mental or personal issues and may turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to manage the stress of returning to civilian life. The Veterans Assistance Project aims to connect service members who need help with existing programs and mentors to address those issues.
The Veterans Assistance Project was piloted in Atlantic County in the municipal courts and in the criminal division of Superior Court in December 2008. It also is in operation in Camden; Cape May; Bergen; Burlington; Gloucester; Mercer; Morris; Passaic; Sussex and Union counties.
More than 350 referrals have been made in those counties since the program began.
The program is geared toward providing services to veterans, not diverting veterans from the courts. Veterans who are charged with indictable and non-indictable offenses, other than minor traffic matters, as well as veterans who are on probation, are eligible to participate in the program.
A video about the Veterans Assistance Project can be found at youtube.com/njcourts