A Missed Chance at a Safer New Jersey

By Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver

Our nation and our state have spent a lot of time recently contemplating two horribly violent incidents.

While still mourning the terrible shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gaby Giffords and those attending her event who were murdered, our attention and heartfelt sympathies quickly turned to the shocking murder of Lakewood police officer Chris Matlosz.

Both tragedies left us thinking about the victims and the opportunities and moments we lost when they died, but the incidents also left us wondering what we could have done as a society to prevent this from happening.

Violence, sadly, has always been a part of human history. Nobody has been able to stop it and the terrible reality is that there’s only so much we can do to prevent evil.  But the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, in particular, reminded me of another New Jersey tragedy because the odd behavior of the alleged shooter indicated that he had mental health issues.

The incident was eerily reminiscent of the 2002 murder of Gregory Katsnelson, an 11-year-old New Jersey boy murdered by a mentally ill man who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but refused treatment and was on the streets.

We worked hard after this tragedy to try to create preventative measures to avoid future occurrences. Exhaustive testimony by heartbroken family members revealed a feeling of helplessness due to the fact that they lacked options to get their loved ones treatment when they refused to acknowledge the need for help, despite a pattern of disturbing and violent behavior.  

As a result, we created a law that empowers families with the option to seek involuntary outpatient commitment (IOC) for loved ones with mental illness who refuse treatment.

Our law was modeled after a similar measure in New York called Kendra’s Law, which was passed in 1999.  A study published by the State of New York five years after Kendra’s Law was implemented showed that among individuals in the program:

§         74 percent fewer experienced homelessness;

§         77 percent fewer experienced psychiatric hospitalization;

§         83 percent fewer experienced arrest; and

§         87 percent fewer experienced incarceration.

Clearly, it makes much more sense to try and get patients the treatment they need in an outpatient setting. IOC has proven highly successful in helping patients comply with their medication needs, reducing their hospital stays and helping them along on the path to recovery and productivity. 

Without this option, those that go untreated are likely to pose a serious danger to themselves or others. At the very least, they will be utilizing other state resources such as the hospital or jail, which end up costing taxpayers far more money. 

Our law was a step in the right direction toward a safer and kinder New Jersey.

But unbelievably, the Christie administration has refused to implement the law, leaving the safety of innocent New Jerseyans and those with mental illness who refuse treatment at risk.

This law isn’t simply about dollars and cents; It’s about saving lives.

It’s an issue of importance to each and every New Jerseyan.

We’re all very sensitive to the fiscal situation in New Jersey, but it’s the administration’s job to budget and comply with our laws. Ignoring this law may also prove even more costly to taxpayers – financially and in terms of untold lives that may be lost or damaged.

That’s simply irresponsible.

Disregarding the law is always unacceptable, but it’s especially so when it threatens public safety and the health of those striving to combat mental illness.

Our worst fear is that more lives will be destroyed. It’s time to start enforcing this law and making our state a safer place.

Assembly Speaker Oliver is a Democrat who represents the 34th Legislative District in Essex and Passaic counties.

A Missed Chance at a Safer New Jersey