Mercer County officials discuss Mental Health Court to curb violence

Two men were murdered in the parking lot of this gas station. Sept. 11, 2016 (Penny Ray - Trentonian)

Two men were murdered in the parking lot of this gas station. Sept. 11, 2016 (Penny Ray - Trentonian)

Shortly after 3 a.m. on September 11, a Trenton cop left the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Chambers Street; moments later two men were murdered in the Shell gas station parking lot.

“I wonder what we could have done differently in that particular circumstance,” Police Director Ernest Parrey Jr. said. “I had a supervisor in a vehicle sitting there. He left to respond to a call. Other than having someone posted on every single corner, what more can you possibly do?”

The capital city experienced 24 homicides in 2016, which includes the deaths of Edwardo Martinez and Vincent Miller, whom both were killed by hit-and-run drivers. That number also includes the death of Alfred Toe who was shot and killed while trying to wrestle a handgun away from an off-duty police officer.

That number does not include the death of Antonio Wiley, the city crossing guard who was struck and killed by a motorist while helping someone walk across Route 129 in April. Duane Bennett, of Upper Freehold, was arrested in connection with the incident and is charged with causing death while driving with a suspended license. But Bennett has not been charged with death by auto, and the medical examiner lists the manner of Wiley’s death an accident. Prosecutors say the case will be presented to a grand jury soon, which may result in a vehicular homicide indictment.

According to the New Jersey State Police Uniform Crime Reporting Unit, vehicular homicides are considered manslaughter and are not reported as a homicide statistic. Justifiable homicides are not counted in state police murder statistics either. Therefore, NJSP will report Trenton’s official 2016 homicide number as 21.

The Trentonian, however, includes vehicular homicides and justifiable police-involved killings in its yearly homicide count.

Whether one acknowledges the 2016 death toll as 24 or 21, the tally is still greater than the number of people who were killed in the capital the year prior. The number of young people who are killed each year in this 8-square-mile city, coupled with the fact that several of them were innocent bystanders, is one of the things that keeps Parrey awake at night.

“Sometimes you just want to scream,” Parrey said. “Every morning [after a murder] we ask, ‘Why weren’t we there?’”

The department hired two classes of recruits last year, and it has enough budget to hire another group for the next police academy class. But anywhere from 10 to 20 officers could retire within the next two years. The total amount of officers currently on the force is much lower than the number of cops employed prior to the 2011 layoffs, which presents a number of challenges to daily crime suppression.

“From a statistical perspective, 2015 was a very good year,” Parrey said. “When the numbers were tallied at the end of that year, I thought, ‘Wow, this may be hard to live up to.’ We saw an uptick in crime in 2016, but these things go in cycles. The summer months and weekend nights are no longer the most violent times of the year. We can no longer predict when and where crime will happen. We truly have to have a 24/7 crime suppression operation throughout the entire year.”

State police data released last week shows the capital city experienced an increase in almost every category of crime compared to the year prior. Between January and November 2016, rapes increased 14 percent, robberies increased 10 percent and burglaries increased 22 percent, compared to that same time period in 2015. Gun assaults, aggravated assaults and simple assaults increased comparatively between the two years as well.

With violence prevalent in this population of 84,000 people, city activists, politicians and law enforcement personnel are talking more about the role mental health plays in these criminal incidents.

A 2015 report released by the Study Commission on Violence recommends reforming New Jersey’s mental health programs to curb violence. Although the commission found that people with a mental health disability are more likely to be victims as opposed to perpetrators of violent crime, the report also notes that violence directly correlates with substance abuse.

Additionally, a study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) found that 72 percent of prisoners with a mental health disorder also had a substance abuse problem. That same study also found that two-thirds of all juveniles who are exposed to the criminal justice system have co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.

“In fact, it is when substance abuse co-occurs with mental illness that we see a connection to criminal activity,” the commission’s report states, also noting that violent behavior appears to be more common in people with mental illnesses when there is also the presence of other risk factors such as a history of violence, juvenile detention, physical abuse and recent stressors such as being a crime victim, getting divorced, or losing a job.

Due to these facts, personnel at the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office have been practicing what they describe as an “informal Mental Health Court.”

Mental Health Court is not a new concept within the criminal justice system, but not every jurisdiction has one. Union County currently has a jail diversion program that works similar to Mental Health Court. And Pennsylvania has numerous specialty courts, including several that are devoted to cases involving a mental health component.

Essentially, Mental Health Court works similar to Drug Court, and offenders with severe mental illness are diverted into a judicially supervised program that includes community-based treatment.

Since Mercer County doesn’t have a Mental Health Court, prosecutors and defense attorneys often work together to identify cases with a mental health component that are clogging the criminal justice system and could be resolved without sending the offender to jail. Since the county doesn’t have a formal program such as this, prosecutors could not provide an exact number of cases that fall into this category. But officials say a “significant number” of Mercer County cases could be resolved through a mental health jail diversion program, especially the criminal assault cases that originate within the Ann Klein Forensic Center and the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

“You’re never going to eradicate mental health issues; you have to service and supervise it,” Assistant Prosecutor Amy Devenny said. “If we put someone in jail for three years, he or she will still have the same issue when they get out. We have to get better at supervising and managing those types of cases. We get a good number of people who shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system.”

In 2007, Senator Shirley Turner (D-Mercer/Hunterdon) introduced legislation that would establish a Mental Health Court in Mercer County. But the bill never gained traction with other lawmakers for several different reasons. Turner plans to reintroduce a revised version of the bill in the near future, and she believes fellow lawmakers will support it.

“I would love to see this type of jail diversion program become more structured here in Mercer as opposed to me picking up the phone and calling Amy about a case,” Public Defender Jessica Lyons said. “Quite honestly, there’s more than the few cases that cross our desks and there’s no mechanism to adequately identify the cases that would benefit from Mental Health Court.”

In Pennsylvania, a specific judge oversees all the cases in a particular jurisdiction that may benefit from a mental health jail diversion program, and he or she works with prosecutors and defense attorneys to develop the appropriate course of action.

“Individuals who complete our program often develop the tools they need to be successful,” Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper, who presides over Mental Health Court in Philadelphia County, said. “Sometimes they make small achievements, such as being able to take their medication independently. But some of the people who enter the program actually learn to live independently. Sometimes they go back to school and receive their high school diploma, or they attend college or some other type of vocational training. Those type of things make the program successful.”

Coordinators of the Mental Health Court program in Philadelphia were not able to provide exhaustive data regarding recidivism rates. But officials say that in 2015 only three of the people who completed the Mental Health Court program in Philadelphia were later arrested for new offenses.

Senator Turner said her new bill would establish Mental Health Court programs in North, Central and South Jersey. For the programs to truly be successful, each jurisdiction that implements a specialty court would have to hire additional judges and other personnel, which would require grant money or more taxpayer dollars.

“From what I’ve been able to determine from legislators, there’s a lot of interest in this,” Turner said. “I think people have come to the realization that this is far preferable in more ways than one. This is how we should deal with someone in a humane manner: help make that person productive so they can take care of themselves instead of incarcerating them.”

View additional 2016 homicide statistics here.

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