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A New Jersey bill is now law that will create a statewide program to divert some people with certified mental illnesses who commit certain crimes into a special treatment program rather than sending them to prison.
The prime sponsor of the legislation, New Jersey state Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, said this new law makes sense because a significant number of people enter the criminal justice system who are suffering from mental illness.
“The core of their issue is a mental health issue, criminalizing that doesn’t help the individual, it doesn’t help recidivism, and doesn’t help any of those agencies that then become part of the network that’s around that person,” Ruiz said.
“There are many individuals that end up in the criminal justice system, that at the time of committing the crime, were presenting or in the middle of a crisis,” she continued.
One such person, 58-year-old Newark resident April Wilson, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 21.
After graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in psychology, she earned another degree in psych rehabilitation from the University of Medicine and Dentistry. She held a steady job for years and taught a mental health Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) course for law enforcement — but then her medication stopped working properly.
She had never been in trouble with the law, but in 2018 she was arrested twice for burglary, damaging property, and assaulting a neighbor. She wound up spending four months in jail and more than eight months in two different psychiatric hospitals.
“I just lost touch with reality, my thoughts were not clear, I thought they were out to hurt me,” she said.
During the time when she was incarcerated, a public defender recognized Wilson from the CIT class she once taught. After she was transferred to a psychiatric hospital, that lawyer worked to get her into an Essex County mental health diversion program.
Wilson’s medication was changed, she was admitted into the program, and did well. She has avoided additional jail time and hasn’t had any problems since.