Should Veterans Who Commit Violent Crimes Get a 2nd Chance in NJ?
Last month, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bipartisan initiative into law known as the Veterans Diversion Program.
The new law requires the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to work with its federal counterpart to offer mental health services to military service members who have committed minor nonviolent offenses instead of sending them to jail.
Some believe the new law doesn’t go far enough, and the program should be open also to former members of the military who have been accused of or found guilty of committing a physical act of violence.
“The horrors of war and the experiences of war and the fear and sadness of someone deployed has not been resonating. There’s a lack of understanding and maybe even sensitivity in some of the prosecutor’s offices that I have encountered,” said Thomas Roughneen, an attorney with Citizen Soldier Law.
“The military service record, the awards, the deployments, the combat, the bloodshed is just not, to me, sufficiently understood.”
He explained a veteran’s ability to utilize badly needed federally subsidized mental health or substance abuse programs are dependent on whatever decision is made by a prosecutor and a judge, and a violent offense should not be grounds to exclude a vet from getting this kind of help.
Roughneen, himself a veteran, pointed out if former football star Ray Rice was given a second chance, then military veterans should get the same kind of chance.
“This man slammed his fiancée with a knockout blow, sending her to the ground in an elevator, and he got PTI," which is the state's pre-trial intervention program that allows offenders to avoid prison or record of a criminal conviction if they stay out of trouble.
He said Rice got pretrial intervention because he had a good lawyer who argued his client deserved a second chance.
“The veterans deserve that chance, but they just don’t have the money to pay for a high-priced lawyer and so we need the public defenders and prosecutors to make that consideration every time.”
He recommended that prosecutors and public defenders be trained in veterans issues.
He says that young soldiers are trained to “kill, kill, kill, and then they run around with a weapon during their deployment, and then they return home and there’s very little time for them to reintegrate.”
He said, “We drop them back on a wife or a girlfriend and kids and it’s not like a light switch that can be flipped off. What winds up happening is the wives of these men, they don’t want their husband, their boyfriend, the father of their children to be incarcerated. They don’t want to be a single parent, they want their loved ones to be treated.”
He pointed out many veterans that return home from combat struggle to go back to the way things were.
“They have monsters, the devil comes into their brain, and if they’re not on pain medications for injuries they’re on mind altering prescription medication,” he said.
Roughneen also noted many veterans who need help don’t ask for it because it may have a negative impact on future employment opportunities.
He said the current law can be adjusted so in certain cases veterans who commit a violent crime can be eligible for the diversion program, either through additional legislation or by a directive from the state Attorney General’s Office.