A program created in late 2017 to divert some veterans out of the criminal-justice system and into mental health services has slowly gotten off the ground: 35 defendants diverted out of nearly 4,700 eligible cases.

The state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs is looking for volunteer mentors to help the defendants who are referred to the Veterans Diversion Program. There are currently 38 mentors after two classes have been completed, said Brig. Gen. Jemal Beale.

“We just started doing this, so it’s kind of a new thing,” Beale said. “So, we’ll get better over the year or two. Through outreach, we're out asking for mentors.”

“This year, we’d love to train more mentors and work to get the online mentor training program up and running,” he said. “Because the more mentors we have, the more veterans we can assist.”

The program is available for cases of third- and fourth-degree crimes, which usually do not result in prison sentences, and disorderly persons and petty disorderly persons offenses, which are usually heard in Municipal Court. Decisions about whether to divert a case are made by prosecutors.

According to the state judiciary, 31 defendants have been diverted at the Superior Court level, out of 1,518 cases involving military service members, and four were diverted at the municipal court level, of 3,161 identified cases.

Beale said mentors are required to be assigned to each program participant.

“Mentors will work with justice-system involved veterans to make sure they are getting the proper federal Veterans Administration support, from drug and alcohol treatment, mental health and behavioral health programs or other potential VA benefits that can support the veteran,” he said.

Beale said the New Jersey State Bar Association is considering whether to approve Veterans Diversion Program mentorship as pro bono work.

“So some of the mentors, it would be very helpful, if they get that through, will be attorneys. And that’s a good thing,” Beale said.

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