Legal Aid's Chief Attorney Seymour James Calls de Blasio Plan To Help Mentally Ill In NYC Criminal Justice System "An Important Step"

Seymour James, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, told the Wall Street Journal that the City will have to ensure there are adequate treatment facilities for the mentally ill who are now being incarcerated. Commenting on Mayor de Blasio's newly announced plan to address mentally ill in the criminal justice system, James said that the lack of facilities is a gap that has been a problem in the past.

“As they move forward, one problem is that there aren’t a sufficient number of beds for mental health issues,” James said.  He called the plan “an important step to limit the overuse of incarceration of the mentally ill.” James is a member of the mayoral task force.




The Wall Street Journal
De Blasio Task Force Proposes Changes to Address Mentally Ill in New York City’s Criminal-Justice System
By Rebecca Davis O'Brien
Dec. 1, 2014 

New York City would spend $130 million over four years to address the large number of mentally ill people in the criminal-justice system under a plan proposed late Monday by a mayoral task force.

The plan represents the latest step by city officials to overhaul law enforcement, courts and jail systems in the wake of high-profile episodes involving mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island. The jail complex also has come under scrutiny after reports of dangerous conditions and lapses in treatment and supervision. 

Among the recommendations by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System: decreased use of punitive segregation for all inmates, training for corrections officers to deal with mentally ill inmates and expanded substance abuse treatment for all inmates.

The city also plans to increase support for people as they leave custody, including Medicaid enrollment and placement in supportive housing, according to the report.

And the task force recommended changes to the city’s bail system to ensure people aren’t incarcerated simply because they can’t make bail.

Officials said the proposals are a recognition that the treatment of mental illness is a critical issue to public-safety policy in the city, from street policing to courtrooms to prison cells.

More than a third of the city’s average daily jail population of about 11,400 are mentally ill, according to the report; 7% of the jail population suffers from “serious” mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

“It is probably the number one issue facing the criminal justice system,” said Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. “We could achieve far more crime reduction by identifying, as early as possible, those offenders with mental-health issues,” and treating them through the public health system.

Some of the recommended changes are already in motion, such as the reduction in the use of controversial confinement practices on Rikers Island.

“Some pieces require more planning,” said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. She said there would be “intense oversight” of the rollout.

The task force convened in June and drew input from more than 400 experts and leaders. It will meet again before Christmas, Ms. Glazer said.

Its report painted a bleak picture of New York’s criminal-justice system, calling it a “revolving door” for the mentally ill.

In the past five years, a group of just over 400 individuals were responsible for 10,000 admissions in the city’s jails, adding up to 300,000 days behind bars, according to the report.

“That’s a very small number of people who are using the system to a very high degree,” said Ms. Glazer.

Propelling the recommendations was the case of Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran who died in a hot cell in a mental-health unit at Rikers Island in February. In October, the city announced that Murdough’s family would receive a $2.25 million settlement.

The death “illustrated the need for examination and reform at really every point in the intertwined criminal justice and behavioral health systems,” Ms. Glazer said.

Of the $130 million, $40 million comes from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office asset forfeiture fund, Ms. Glazer said. The rest comes from city funds, and will be spread out over four years. The city is also developing a Compstat system to track its progress achieving goals, Ms. Glazer said, adding that City Council approval wasn’t required.

Some of the programs will be launched as pilots. Manhattan courts will see the first screening of all defendants at arraignment for mental health and substance abuse needs.

“Even just screening people in courts alone would be a fantastic plan,” said Administrative Judge Matthew D’Emic, a task-force member who presides over the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, which works with roughly 100 felony and misdemeanor defendants each year, steering them through treatment programs.

In his court, Judge D’Emic said “housing is the biggest issue”—only half of the defendants in his court have a place to go for treatment and shelter.

The city will have to ensure there are adequate treatment facilities, a gap that had been a problem in the past, said Seymour James, attorney in chief for the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

“As they move forward, one problem is that there aren’t a sufficient number of beds for mental health issues,” said Mr. James, who called the plan “an important step to limit the overuse of incarceration of the mentally ill.”