Legal Aid Chief Praises Plan To Divert Persons With Mental Problems To Treatment Instead Of Jail
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 02, 2014

Seymour W. James, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, praised the Mayor's plan to screen nonviolent persons with mental illnesses before arraignment and divert them to treatment programs rather than holding them at Rikers Island. He told the New York Times that “to have someone screening individuals early can make a world of difference. They deteriorate in Rikers Island.”

Current efforts to identify mentally ill people before arraignment have been spotty at best, James said. People with undisclosed mental problems often appear risky to judges and have bails imposed upon them that they cannot pay.

 
 
 
The New York Times
New York Plan Aims to Divert Mentally Ill People From Jail’s Revolving Door
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
DEC. 2, 2014

It is hard to walk the halls of the Criminal Courts Building in Manhattan without encountering stories of crimes committed by people with mental illnesses. On Monday, two separate murder cases were being tried against men who had presented evidence they were psychotic when they stabbed their victims to death.

In a third courtroom, a homeless man with a history of mental illness, who had been jailed several times before for minor crimes, was scheduled to be arraigned on attempted murder charges after being accused of stabbing a street vendor in the chest with a pair of scissors.

Those are the nightmare cases, defense lawyers and prosecutors say, horrific situations in which people who never received effective treatment for mental illnesses ended up committing violent crimes.

But every day, dozens of people with fragile psyches are arraigned in Manhattan for minor crimes. Many cannot make bail and are remanded to Rikers Island, where they seldom receive the medical care they need, criminal justice experts said. These defendants often leave jail with a weaker hold on sanity than when they entered. A few go on to commit worse offenses. 

“What we have been doing to try to keep mentally ill offenders from cycling in and out of the system has not worked well enough,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced an ambitious $130 million plan to break that pattern, to screen out nonviolent defendants with mental illnesses before arraignment and divert many more of them to supervised release programs or to treatment programs, rather than holding them in jail.

Many parts of Mr. de Blasio’s plan have yet to be fully developed or put into effect, and will take shape over the next year, possibly in the form of pilot projects. Some of his proposals will build on existing diversion programs and a supervised release system.

More than a decade ago, the judiciary established mental health courts to handle cases in which both sides agree treatment is a better outcome than incarceration. Those courts have dealt with 2,900 defendants in the city since 2002.

Still, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said the mayor’s plan would bring more resources to bear on identifying mentally ill people earlier during their encounter with the criminal justice system, and then taking steps to prevent them from being arrested repeatedly.

“The key is the early screening,” Judge Lippman said. “If you don’t deal with their mental problems, you are exposing the public to great harm, because these people are unbalanced.”

Mr. Vance said one important provision in the plan was the training of police officers to spot signs of mental illness, which his office is underwriting with $15 million in forfeiture funds. The officers will then have the option, without booking them, to take people accused of minor crimes to newly established community drop-off centers, where they can receive treatment and counseling, rather than putting them through the court system. 

Another important plank of the plan is the expansion of a supervised release program to 3,400 slots, from 1,100, Mr. Vance said. Under that program, defendants can avoid jail if social workers stay in close touch with them while a case is pending and they agree to go to mental health services and drug treatment. The additional 2,300 slots will be made available to mentally troubled people.

The city also plans in January to begin systematic screening in Manhattan by sending health care workers into the central booking office at 100 Centre Street, armed with diagnostic questionnaires for defendants before they are arraigned.

At present, medics from the Fire Department do a brief health screening of defendants during the booking process. But it is generally left to public defenders and social workers in the arraignment courts to identify people who might be candidates for diversion to mental health treatment, and to make a proposal to a judge.

Elizabeth Glazer, the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator, said Mr. de Blasio’s aim was to begin systematically flagging people with a history of mental illness or other signs of a disordered mind.

“We are not reinventing the wheel,” Ms. Glazer said. “We are taking the tried and true and trying to make that wise decision making more systemic.”

Seymour W. James Jr., attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, said the current efforts to identify mentally ill people before arraignment were spotty at best. People with undisclosed mental problems often appear risky to judges and have bails imposed upon them that they cannot pay, he said.

“To have someone screening individuals early can make a world of difference,” he said. “They deteriorate in Rikers Island.”

The mayor’s plan also aims to persuade judges to reduce the use of bail. New York judges can consider only the risk of flight in setting bail. As a result, bail is often imposed on mentally ill defendants, who often have vague work histories, little money and a record of minor arrests, defense lawyers said.

But the mayor’s plan calls for the development of some scientific guidelines over the next year to help judges weigh defendants’ risk of flight if they enter a supervised release program. That approach has worked in Washington, and in some jurisdictions in Kentucky, officials said.