TRENTON - Military veterans who find themselves in trouble with the law will get special assistance under a pilot program announced yesterday.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said the program is designed to help veterans who have had trouble readjusting after serving their country by connecting them with available legal, mental health and social services.

"Our primary goal is to make sure we don't see these veterans a second time," said Rabner. "We want to get them the assistance to get on the straight and narrow so they do not return."

There are about 4,000 New Jersey National Guard troops on active duty, Rabner said.

He said 20 percent of returning service members suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental-health issues, which can lead to brushes with the law. Judges could look favorably on veterans who participate in the program, he said, but it depends on the severity of the crime and how well the veteran responds to services being offered. The program will not divert veterans from the courts, however.

The Veterans Assistance Project will link veterans with an array of services when they enter the criminal justice system, on either the Municipal or Superior Court level. The state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs will assign each a mentor, who will shepherd the individual through the criminal court and social service systems.

The project is being launched as a pilot effort in Atlantic County at no additional cost to taxpayers. Plans are to expand it to Union County.

People identified as veterans when they are arrested, detained or make an initial court appearance will be referred to the Atlantic County Veterans Service Office for an assessment of their needs and assignment of the mentor - an active or retired military person.

More than 7,000 veterans received mental-health services last year through the state Division of Mental Health Services.