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Doug Steinhardt

Posted on: July 6, 2023

Editorial: Violent Offenders Should Go to Prison. Gov. Murphy, Veto the Bill that Lets Them Go Free

Crime Scene Tape

The following editorial by Senator Doug Steinhardt on a well-intentioned but extremely dangerous bill that was sent to Governor Phil Murphy's desk was published by NJ.com on July 5, 2023:

The New Jersey Legislature passed a well-intentioned but extremely dangerous bill last week that Gov. Phil Murphy should veto.

Bill S-524 creates a Mental Health Diversion Program that gives prosecutors unbridled authority to divert violent criminals from the criminal justice system without jail and without a judge.

While New Jersey law already prohibits someone who is "mentally incompetent" from being tried, convicted, and jailed, this law sets an obscenely low bar to divert violent criminals into "appropriate case management and mental health services" - whatever that is.

The bill requires that the diversion program be non-custodial. That means the criminal remains free, even if they are accused of a sex offense or other violent crime.

To add insult to victims' injuries, following diversion offenders are treated to a "graduation ceremony" and their criminal records are automatically eligible for expungement.

The bill mandates no consequences for a criminal who fails the program, and there's no limit to the number of times a criminal may renter it.

Proponents will argue recidivism is low in the programs that inspired the bill, but if that's true, why the need for unlimited readmission? It doesn't make sense.

Although the bill purports to make certain crimes "ineligible" for diversion, prosecutors enjoy sole discretion to make every crime eligible, including Megan's Law offenses, second-degree crimes, violent crimes, arson, weapon offenses, and more. Eligibility, even if discretionary, is the opposite of ineligibility. There's no arguing otherwise.

First-degree crimes were made ineligible for the program through a late amendment to the bill, but nothing in the bill prevents a prosecutor from downgrading a first-degree crime to a lesser offense and diverting it.

Put simply, untold numbers of violent criminals will never see jail if Governor Murphy signs this bill into law. They'll be left on your street to reoffend.

When the bill was considered in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, we were told that Essex County runs a program similar to the one proposed, and there was no need to worry since they never divert second-degree offenses, arson, and Megan's Law offenses, and very rarely, if at all, divert violent crimes of any kind. Unfortunately, the bill program and Essex program are not the same.

Bad people are capable of evil things, and the effect of the language of this bill is that county prosecutors get unlimited discretion to divert heinous crimes and criminals.

If S-524 is signed into law, we would have diversion programs in 21 different counties, with 21 different prosecutors interpreting and applying the law 21 different ways. That's wrong.

Moreover, there is no telling how these diversion programs may be abused, especially since the criteria for an eligible "mental disorder" is written so loosely.

Under the bill, criminals may hire social workers of their choosing (not a doctor) to say they were depressed when they committed their crime.

Since the bill uses the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) definition of depression, a criminal would only need to assert that they were suffering from four of the following symptoms to qualify for diversion: significant weight loss or weight gain; sleeplessness; fatigue; loss of energy; pacing or fidgeting; feelings of worthlessness; diminished ability to think or concentrate; indecisiveness; or recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

A child sexual predator could say they suffered from insomnia, fatigue, indecisiveness, and weight gain at the time of their crime and be diverted, avoid jail, and have their charge expunged. It's ludicrous.

Finally, there is no requirement that a prosecutor or a court do an independent assessment to verify the criminal's diagnosis. It's not hard to imagine a criminal shopping around until they find someone willing to help them for a fee. It's a system ripe for abuse.

In an attempt to fix the most egregious problems with the bill prior to final passage in the Senate, I proposed an amendment to remove all but the non-violent offenders accused of third- and fourth-degree crimes from qualifying for diversion, which I believe was the original intent of the bill.

Unfortunately, my Democrat colleagues blocked that amendment. The bill that passed the Legislature is fatally flawed and filled with obscene loopholes, outrageous vagaries and sheer absurdity.

Really bad people are certain to exploit the program created by this bill. They will be released onto the streets, and they will victimize more innocent people. That's why I opposed this bill.

I appreciate that the sponsor now wants to pass a new bill to exclude Megan's Law offenders, but that still ignores the vast majority of everything else that's wrong with the legislation that's now awaiting the Governor's signature.

If Governor Murphy has a conscience, he'll veto this bill and send it back to the Legislature where it can be fixed and the people of New Jersey protected.

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