ELIZABETH, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – A unique program in New Jersey is having great success getting people out of trouble and back on track.

WCBS 880’s Sean Adams On The Story

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Courts are clogged and prisons are packed. So, what are we to do?

Several years ago, Union County Prosecutor Ted Romankow zeroed in on a particular population – people suffering from mental illness.

“We noticed that some of these people were being charged in municipal courts and then also being charged with crime. Many of them are non-violent crimes,” Romankow told WCBS 880 reporter Sean Adams.

It was thought they would be better served out of the judicial system. Then-Gov. Dick Codey helped secure a grant for a pilot program and the prosecutor partnered with Trinitas Hospital, which evaluates the accused.

“If the person was determined to be mentally ill, then a plan was set up to provide treatment, to provide housing, if necessary, and even to assist them in obtaining a job,” Romankow said.

Unofficially, Romankow calls it a ‘Mental Illness Court.’

Stories from Main Street - Photo: Evan Bindelglass / WCBS 880

Stories from Main Street – Photo: Evan Bindelglass / WCBS 880

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“In many cases, we release the defendants because we knew that they weren’t violent then put them back in a public setting and worked on their charges, either we dismissed them, they may have pled guilty with probation that they continue their treatment,” he said.

Once in treatment and on proper medication, he said, “We found that the recidivism rate which can range anywhere from 60 to 90 percent with mentally ill was somewhere in the range of 35 percent [in our program].”

Union County is the only place in New Jersey to have a so-called mental illness court and Romankow believes this could be a model for others.

“We’re trying to get these people away from the system,” he said. “There’s less cost because these people are not in jail.”

“Instead of making it a pilot program, make it a mandatory program for all counties in the state of New Jersey,” Codey told Adams. “We’re going to lower the crime rates and taxpayers don’t have to pay to put them in jail. So, they’re safer and will have more money in their pockets.”

Right now it is not a legislative priority.

“We have to have a Legislature and a governor to stand up and say, ‘Listen. Mental illness attributes to crime. So, if we attack it, we’ll reduce crime and make our communities safer,'” Codey said.

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