Criminal Law Newsletter

Criminal Law: Winter 2015

Mental Health Innovations in New Jersey Criminal Justice System

Theodore J. Romankow, Esq.

The New Jersey court system is facing an old but recently recognized challenge of prosecuting defendants who suffer from mental illness with justice and compassion.  The Municipal and Superior courts process criminal and quasi-criminal cases involving the mentally ill.  Combined, these courts handle well over one hundred thousand matters each year, many of which involve defendants who are suffering from varying degrees of mental illness.  While the courts have not kept accurate figures, the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) determined, through its medication roster, in March 2011, that 3,203 inmates or approximately 14% of New Jersey inmates suffer from depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar mental illness.  These figures reflect only prisoners sentenced through the Superior Court, not the municipal courts, which handle many more defendants who suffer from a mental illness.  Since this number is medication specific, it also does not reflect the individuals who suffer from other forms of mental illness who may be taking different or no medications. 

Rather than treat these defendants, many of whom are not violent, the criminal justice system has warehoused them in jails.  As late as 2005, the criminal justice system in New Jersey, which included prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the courts, had no idea what to do with individuals suffering from severe or persistent mental illness who were charged with non-violent crimes.  Many of these defendants were arrested, incarcerated, and prosecuted along with those charged with more serious violent crimes.  Every year thousands of non-violent defendants who suffered from mental illness were prosecuted with little or no thought of alternative ways to handle their charges.

In 2005, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office decided to adopt a program of treatment and oversight as an alternative to incarceration.  The Office accepted the premise that, if properly treated, defendants could be returned to society with little or no danger to themselves, their victims, or the public.  A further benefit was to save Union County and the State of New Jersey thousands of dollars per year in incarceration costs.  With the initiation of a diversionary program, the Assistant Prosecutors redirected certain non-violent criminal defendants who suffered from mental illness from the normal day-to-day prosecution-oriented calendar to one of treatment.  If the defendant was determined by a representative of Trinitas Regional Medical Center, located in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to be suffering from a severe or persistent mental illness and the defendant lived in Union County, Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services, a non-profit agency, then prepared a treatment plan for the defendant.  The plan often included taking prescribed medication, attending any recommended therapy, and assistance in finding a place to live and/or work.  Once a defendant was considered an appropriate candidate, he was released on his own recognizance, as agreed to by the defense attorney, assistant prosecutor, and the Court.  Upon release, as a condition of bail, the defendant was required to comply with the terms of the treatment plan which included meeting with the jail diversion case manager at least once a week (sometimes more frequent) to ensure compliance with the treatment plan.  Each month the defendant would return to court and appear before a judge who reviewed and monitored the defendant’s progress.  If the defendant demonstrated his compliance with the treatment plan for approximately one year, the criminal charges, which were held in abeyance, were most times reduced and sometimes dismissed.  Probation was the usual end result for the defendant whose charges did not result in dismissal.

In 2011, a study of the Union County diversion program was conducted by Dr. Kenneth Gill, Ph.D. of the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry.  Following the review of defendants who were accepted in the program between 2005 through 2010, Dr. Gill determined the recidivism rate of those who completed the program was approximately 33% as compared to state and nationwide averages of up to 90%.  It was also noted that the global level of functioning also dramatically improved.

The diversionary program worked so well, other County Prosecutors are now replicating it.  Prosecutors and defense attorneys refer to the court overseeing the diversionary program as the “Mental Health Court”.  However, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has not formally recognized it as such since the AOC discourages “boutique courts” in New Jersey’s court system.

In October of 2010, the Interbranch Advisory Committee on Mental Health was created by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.  It was composed of 21 stakeholders, including members of the Judiciary, various law enforcement agencies, and mental health providers.  The Committee was charged with, among other things, reviewing existing services and programs in the criminal justice system to suggest how to improve the Judiciary’s response to those with mental health needs.  In December of 2012, the Committee submitted its report to the New Jersey Supreme Court with 17 far-reaching recommendations, including the Union County diversionary program.  Among the recommendations was the training of court personnel, including judges, about mental illness.  The Committee also encouraged the Union County paradigm to be used in the municipal courts and encouraged its adoption by others Prosecutors’ offices throughout New Jersey.

Two years have passed since the report was forwarded to the Supreme Court.  Recently, the Supreme Court decided to implement one of the major recommendations by creating an implementation committee composed of New Jersey judges, court personnel, and attorneys, both defense and prosecution, to face the challenge of change.  The recommendation for appropriate mental health training and implementation of diversionary programs in Municipal and Superior courts is high on the list of priority changes within the system.  The challenge is great, but New Jersey is now seemingly ready to move forward.


Note about the author:  

Theodore (“Ted”) J. Romankow was appointed as the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of Union County, New Jersey on July 26, 2002 and served as the Union County Prosecutor until 2013 when he became Of Counsel to Javerbaum Wurgaft joining its Criminal and General Litigation Departments.

As Prosecutor, Mr. Romankow supported a closer examination of how defendants with mental illness were prosecuted in Union County. Under his stewardship, the Special Offender Unit was created within the Prosecutor’s Office to deal exclusively with defendants diagnosed with serious and persistent mental illness.  These efforts expanded in 2006 to include a formal partnership with a  Medical Center to create the first Mental Health Jail Diversion Program in New Jersey.  Since the implementation of these innovative programs in Union County, other counties have followed its model.

After five years of anecdotal evidence of success, Mr Romankow commissioned a study to determine the efficacy of the program. An independent study determined that the recidivism rate in the Union County paradigm was lower than 30% while nationwide recidivism of mentally ill in criminal matters was two to three times higher.

Mr. Romankow worked closely with New Jersey NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, in the creation of a training film for law enforcement entitled "The Community I Serve". The film helps police when called upon to de-escalate mentally ill persons in crisis and was just the first in a series of efforts to improve training for police officers.

 Mr Romankow also implemented  Crisis Intervention Team Training (CIT) for all Union County police departments and first responders.  CIT is a 40 hour joint training for law enforcement and mental health professionals.  It has been proven to reduce injuries to officers and those diagnosed with mental illness as well as provide an opportunity for treatment rather than incarceration in appropriate cases.

As an expansion of these diversion efforts within the Prosecutor’s Office and law enforcement community, Mr. Romankow has championed the creation of  "mental health courts" in the state. He served on the Interbranch Advisory Committee on Mental Health Initiatives. He was recently appointed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner of the New Jersey Supreme Court to serve on the Implementation Committee which will among other things oversee the development of educational programs regarding responses to persons with mental illness for the Judiciary and other court personnel.