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Success, setbacks in jail diversion

By Tom Davis

Barely 10 months ago, Ron Trocheleft the Bergen County Jail a reformed man.

He'd never had a steady job before. He always spent whatevermoney he had on heroin.

But as part of a unique new program, Ron, 40, hadstraightened up. He went through drug rehabilitation, he got counseling. Jobopportunities awaited.

As he left the lockup that December day, the Carlstadtnative was hoping to earn enough to buy a tombstone for his father's grave.

Six months later, Ron got drunk, thenbroke into a few cars. Soon, he was right back behind bars.

"It's like a nightmare," he said recently. "Ican't believe this happened."

Ron had gotten his chance through "jaildiversion," a program that provides alternatives for inmates with mentalillness. He was even considered a model participant. But by his own admission,he blew it.

Ironically, his experience has served as a cautionary tale:Even with the help of trained counselors, the law enforcement community and thecourts, only Ron could truly save himself.

In a double whammy, officials who hope to transform thejustice system's approach to mental health in New Jersey are facing what may be an evengreater obstacle - limited resources.

Two years ago, the state awarded a two-year, $250,000 grantto Bergen Countyto launch New Jersey'sfirst diversion program. The goal was to reduce the jail population, savetaxpayer dollars and, it was hoped, provide a statewide model for helping theneedy.

Care Plus NJ, a private mentalhealth care agency, was chosen to manage the service and provide guidance toinmates who qualified.

Since September 2003, the agency has helped payparticipants' fines, accompanied them to court and served as a liaison to theirfamilies and lawyers. Case managers also have arranged for counseling and drugtreatment and provided transportation.

It remains difficult to measure the program's success,however.

More than 50 people with mental illness have receivedassistance, said program manager Gary Dock. Only two - including Ron - havereturned to jail, he said.

In addition, Dock said, more people now have access topublic assistance programs and benefits when they leave jail. Fewer feel shutoff from family and society.

"There is a greater number of peoplein the criminal justice system who did well, and who continue to do well,outside of Ron," Dock said.

However, because funding is low, staffing is small. Thereare also strict requirements: Participants must be county residents with nohistory of violence. As a result, 70 percent of those who apply don't get intothe program, said Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli,who has spearheaded the effort.

Services that offer jobs, benefits and housing are limited.Participants are often left to fend for themselves.

As a result, the goal has been to prevent recidivism - notcreate diversion options.

"The program is in a skeletal mode right now until morefunding sources become available," Molinellisaid. "More training and money is what it needs."

Other regions - such as Bexar County, Texas,which received a three-year, $900,000 federal grant, and provided an additional$300,000 - have fashioned successful jail diversionprograms.

·Bexar, home of San Antonio, serves hundreds of mentally ill inmates at a time, as doesa similar program in Alaska.Bergen County's jail diversion program hadabout 30 active cases by the end of August.

·Bexar employs 60 to 70 licensedcounselors and employees dedicated solely to jail diversion. Bergen's Care Plus program has a supervisorand two case managers, along with a 39-member Integrated Case ManagementServices Division, as well as other programs.

·Other states train police officers toidentify people with mental illness. If they commit a crime, they go totreatment - not jail. Care Plus has assisted police officers and divertedpeople into treatment, but doesn't provide the same training.

·Other states intervene prior toincarceration. To this point, Care Plus's jail diversion staff has mostlyassisted people after they're been locked up.

In jail, inmates lack access to programs that help peoplemanage anger or develop coping skills, said James Wulach,professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justicein New York.Only a uniquely qualified person can succeed in such an environment, he said.

"For people who are on the edge, successfulintervention can keep them on the straight side," Wulachsaid. "Those people who are below the edge, they're just going tore-offend."

The program's defenders in Bergen Countysay they must battle forces outside of their control.

For one thing, most treatment programs are maxed out. Othersdon't accept people with mental illness because they take medication.

Eva's Village in Paterson, one of the state's largestrehabilitation centers, has a waiting list for its 122-bed program. Barbara Niziol, the facility's development coordinator, saidmedication cases are difficult for Eva's small staff.

"We're not really equipped to handle very seriousamounts of medication for people with serious problems," she said.

Compounding the jail diversion effort is a scarcity ofhousing.

Bergen County has the20th-highest monthly housing costs for renter-occupied housing units in thenation, according to 2000 U.S. Census statistics.

If Care Plus had more money, it could hire more staff andtake more cases, Dock said. But more money "wouldn't create morerooms," he said. "It's even beyond just mental health concerns. It'sa poverty issue. It's a fair-housing issue. It's all of those issues."

Ron, for one, didn't think it would be so hard to succeed.

Instead of fighting a second-degree robbery charge, Ronagreed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of third-degree burglary. Instead offive years in state prison, he got five years' probation - provided he agreedto undergo treatment for substance abuse.

Once he'd completed treatment at Bergen Regional Medical Center,Ron began searching for an apartment. He had no credit, but he found landlordswho were mildly interested. He told them about his mental health history.

Many never called him back.

Desperate, Ron moved in with a man who drank so much thatthe garbage overflowed with beer cans. Soon Ron was drinking again.

"It was me. I really screwed up. They [Care Plus] werereally great," he said. "It was just that one night - I wentballistic."

Ron is expected to remain at the county jail while Care Plusofficials try once again to find appropriate treatment for him.

Some who've been through the jail diversion program haveproven better off on their own.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Don Cardinaliof New Milford had gotten hooked on heroin.Last year, he was jailed on charges of "causing alarm" after heshowed up drunk at a Ridgefield bank.

At first, Care Plus was Don's only source of hope. His goalafter leaving the Bergen County lockup was to return to work at a Palisades Park music store.

But Don didn't want to go to rehab, so Care Plus couldn'thelp.

In January, Don walked out of the jail into the 20-degreeweather with no place to go, and no support system around him. Homelessshelters with beds were nearly full, so he stayed at the Bergen CommunityAction Program's sit-up shelter on Orchard Street in Hackensack.There, his medication was stolen, he said.

Bergen CAP banned him because of his behavior. So Donwandered the streets of Hackensackin the snow, half-awake, worrying that he'd never see summer.

"I haven't done a crime to anyone but me," Donsaid in February. "Right now, I'm angry. No one's allowed me anyconfidence."

Through his own determination, though, Don survived. Heentered himself in programs at EnglewoodHospital and Bergen Regional Medical Center.In March, he found an apartment in Englewood.He's clean and sober and has taken a number of odd jobs.

Most important, he's kept out of trouble.

"Sanity is my goal. I want soundness of mind," Donsaid. "I've still got a real good chance."

County officials are asking for patience with the program.

Molinellisaid he believed the best way to measure its success is to wait ayear. By then, many of the program's clients will be established in thecommunity. He hopes to get a response next month to the county's applicationfor $500,000 in state and federal grants to help boost the program.

The funding could pay for screening additional people withmental illness before they're lodged in jail, he said. Molinellialso hopes to train judiciary employees, public defenders, assistantprosecutors and police to better identify the mentally ill.

So far, Dock said, the program has impressed grant-fundingagencies. The state Division of Mental Health Services, which monitors how CarePlus' grant money is spent, recently renewed annual funding at about $125,000.

The program also has the support of law enforcement andcounty officials - a rarity, Dock said. "Every program that's springing upright now is asking about how we brought these people into the roomtogether," he said.

Care Plus officials say the agency is expanding its role anddiverting more people to treatment before they land in jail.

"We work together to invest what we have, and in whatwe can do right now," Dock said.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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