Veterans who end up in the Criminal Justice System for non-violent acts committed due to persistent mental illness, will be eligible for treatment and counseling under a two-year Veteran's Diversion Pilot Program (VDP) being launched by Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato on January 1st, 2016.  

Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The VDP will be applied when the prosecutor, defense attorney, and defendant agree to the participant's application into the program followed by a mental health assessment and case management screening, according to Coronato.

Coronato detailed the VDP to Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders last week, pointing out that many times veterans who get into trouble with the law are suffering from such issues as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety, Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia, also noting the incidents often involve weapons, because they have been trained to be "fighting machines" while serving in the military. Only veterans who pass a thorough screening process will be considered, according to Coronato.

"You divert them from the system and they're not taking time up in the county jail, and the bottom line is: it's tremendously the right thing to do," said Coronato.

The two-year pilot program will cost $150,000 to implement, according to Coronato. He said the first year will be paid for with $75,000 in forfeiture funds from the County Law Enforcement Trust Account.

"These veterans really need counseling at least a minimum three times a week, they need to be right here, it needs to make sure that somebody's going to checking in on them all the time," Coronato said.

Coronato is optimistic that once the VDP model is established, it will prompt other counties with mental health programs similar to Ocean County's, to implement it as well.

Freeholder John P. Kelly, the Director Law and Public Safety, commented on how often the cost of freedom and how much we owe to veterans is discussed in general.

"This is a chance to, with very meager funds, look at how we can help veterans who come back with various problems from war," said Kelly. He added, "This program would really focus 100 percent on Ocean County veterans."

"I do believe the Veteran's Administration is going to eventually pick up the tab for this because one, it's not cost-prohibitive; two, it's more efficient," said Coronato.

Coronato is confident after two years of funding the pilot program, he'll have success stories to be be able to secure permanent funding from outside means.

Kelly echoed the sentiment of the Freeholder Board in expressing interest in financially supporting the program, commenting that it's a direct way to show veterans they're appreciated, beyond just saluting them at a parade.

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