More than a decade ago, Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton decided that there was a better way to help those with mental-health disabilities than putting them in jail.

"When they're incarcerated, the bottom falls out," Dalton said Thursday after announcing that Gloucester was one of three counties in New Jersey to receive two-year, $150,000 grants that will be used to administer mental-health services for those who have interaction with police.

The goal is to identify people with mental-health problems who may cross paths with police for nonviolent offenses and may need therapy or medication rather than jail, Dalton said.

Dalton uses the example of a fast-food customer who unwraps a sandwich and smears it on the restaurant window, and an employee calls police. Rather than charging the person with disorderly conduct, authorities could evaluate him or her for underlying problems.

Gloucester, Hunterdon, and Warren Counties have been selected for the grants, administered by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office.

Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said the money would pay for contracted treatment and counseling as alternatives to jail.

Program participants will be monitored by case managers to ensure they comply with treatment plans, including medication if administered. The case managers will report progress to prosecutors, court, and defense attorneys, according to the Attorney General's Office.

Prior to participation, candidates will be screened for mental health disorders and co-occurring substance-abuse issues. Consideration also will be given to the nature and severity of the crime, and prior criminal record.

The Attorney General's Office reports that roughly 25 percent of inmates with a mental disability have previously been incarcerated three or more times, and about 75 percent also have substance-abuse problems.

"No life is disposable, and when a criminal defendant's problems appear to be caused or aggravated by a mental-health disability, there is both a moral and a practical imperative for us to try to reclaim that life by offering necessary treatment and counseling," Hoffman said in a news release this week.

"Providing these services to low-level criminal defendants with a diagnosed mental disorder is not only a cost-effective alternative to prison, but research consistently shows it reduces recidivism," Hoffman said.

Dalton said that in Gloucester County, law enforcement charges about 900 people each year for minor offenses, of which about 20 percent are related to a mental health disorder. Law enforcement and mental health officials have been using alternatives for numerous years, he said. This grant will allow the county to expand services next year, Dalton said.

In 2003, the county prosecutor created a committee to address mental health concerns. The committee, which includes residents with relatives who have mental health disorders, created special training for police to recognize symptoms of mental illness, and the Bridge Program, which helps inmates transition back into their communities.

Thursday, Dalton said the grant money will be used to help people avoid a criminal conviction, if possible. Disposition of criminal charges can be coordinated with success within the treatment program.

NewPoint Behavioral Services, a Woodbury-based mental health treatment agency, will be the service provider for the diversionary program, Dalton said. Candidates initially will be selected by an assistant county prosecutor prior to presentation of the case to a grand jury.

Other county agencies, including probation and corrections, will work with a program supervisor to monitor treatment progress. Monitoring may include home electronic detention, behavioral health initiatives, and county social services.

Successful participants likely would receive probationary sentences, with continued monitoring to ensure that recidivism is reduced.

The grants are part of a growing number of alternatives the state is using to reduce the incarceration of non-violent offenders. The money for the grants is coming from the state's Drug Enforcement and Demand Reduction Fund, which is funded through fines imposed on convicted drug offenders. In addition, the counties each must provide $50,000 for the program.

Last year, the state awarded $150,000 grants to Ocean and Essex Counties for two-year pilot programs in mental-health diversion. In addition, the state funds Atlantic County's mental health diversion program for veterans and active-duty military personnel.

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