New Misdemeanor Arraignment Diversion Program, Funded by Langeloth Foundation, Begins Today
TUESDAY, JULY 06, 2010

The Legal Aid Society's new Misdemeanor Arraignment Diversion Project (MAP), which teams lawyers with social workers to divert persons charged with misdemeanors who have histories of mental illness from jail and into programs, began today in Manhattan Criminal Court. Funded by a two-year grant from The Langeloth Foundation, the innovative project is aimed at individuals "who are likely to fall between the cracks and end up at Rikers Island without the services they need," said Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief. "We hope to prevent individuals from being sent to jail at great public expense."

MAP is headed by John Volpe, who is also Director of the MICA (mentally ill, chemically addicted program at Legal Aid. To be eligible for the program, a client must have a mental illness; be facing misdemeanor charges and agree to work with the Legal Aid team, which also includes a paralegal. The arraignment diversion project is an outgrowth of two programs already in place at Legal Aid, where social workers arrange services for mentally ill and chemically addicted clients and adolescents charged as adults in criminal proceedings.

New York Law Journal
Legal Aid Project Includes Social Workers on Criminal Defense Team
By Noeleen G. Walder
July 06, 2010

Starting today, the Legal Aid Society will have a social worker on hand in Manhattan Criminal Court misdemeanor arraignment part to identify defendants in need of mental health services.

"The data shows that a significant percentage of persons charged with crimes have a history of mental illness," said Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief for Legal Aid.

These individuals are "likely to fall between the cracks and end up at Rikers [Island] without the services they need," he said. By teaming lawyers with social workers and providing services directly at arraignments "we hope to prevent individuals from being sent to jail at great public expense," Mr. Banks said in an interview.

The Langeloth Foundation will provide roughly $369,000 to fund the two-year pilot Misdemeanor Arraignment Diversion Project ("MAP").

The money has enabled Legal Aid to hire one social worker, Siobhan Morris, and one paralegal, Acola McKnight, both of whom will be on hand three to four days a week during the day shift of the main misdemeanor arraignment part. The interdisciplinary team also will include a non-paid intern with a history of mental health issues to act as a peer advocate.

To be eligible for the program, which is headed by John F. Volpe, a social worker on staff at Legal Aid, a client must have a mental illness; be facing misdemeanor charges and at risk of having bail set or being remanded; and agree to work with the Legal Aid team.

After a defendant has been identified and agrees to participate, a Legal Aid attorney will try to resolve the case on the spot or ask the arraignment judge to continue the case while the defendant receives services.

These "frontline assessments and linkage to community treatment will provide the court options other than jail and hope for clients who are caught in the cycle of arrest," according to the funding proposal submitted by Legal Aid.

The pilot project will serve between 300 to 400 clients in its first year, the proposal estimates. A typical arraignment shift in Manhattan processes about 80 cases a week, according to Manhattan Criminal Court Supervising Judge Melissa C. Jackson.

The Legal Aid initiative is not the first to address mental health issues of defendants in the Manhattan arraignment parts. But it is the first time social workers will be part of an institution-based defense team.

The Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, or CASES, an independent agency, started in 2002 to deploy a social worker in the arraignment part to try to divert people at risk of receiving short jail sentences, according to Ann-Marie Louison, director of mental health programs at CASES.

Though the program was discontinued for a while due to a lack of funding, CASES received a federal grant in late 2007 that enabled it to hire a psychologist to work in the arraignment part.

Using a standard set of questions, Ms. Louison said that the psychologist diverts some 50 people a year to a day custody program at the Manhattan House of Detention. That number represents only a fraction of the 13,000 mentally ill individuals that CASES estimates pass through the Manhattan arraignment part every year, according to Ms. Louison.

This figure is based on a 2009 nationwide study, which concluded that about 15 percent of men and just over 30 percent of women in jail have a serious mental illness.

Ms. Louison said the Legal Aid diversion program will serve a larger population and ensure that information about a client's mental health is protected by the attorney-client privilege.

Many lawyers are uncomfortable talking to clients about mental illness, while others do not have the time to broach the issue, Ms. Louison said. The Legal Aid social worker will be able to address concerns about confidentiality and provide the attorneys with the information they need to decide whether mental illness is pertinent to a client's case, she said.

Programs in Place

The arraignment diversion project is an outgrowth of two programs already in place at Legal Aid, where social workers try to arrange services for mentally ill and chemically addicted clients and adolescents charged as adults in criminal proceedings.

Started in 2002, the Mentally Ill and Chemically Addicted Clients Project, or MICA, which Mr. Volpe also oversees, seeks to secure alternatives to incarceration for defendants diagnosed with a "severe mental illness" who also have substance abuse issues.

According to statistics provided by Legal Aid, from 2002 through 2009, of the 258 clients who participated in the MICA project, 57 percent have had no future contact with the criminal justice system. In contrast, only 22 percent of clients who are accepted into the program but refuse services avoid rearrest.

Legal Aid's Adolescent Intervention and Diversion program employs a therapeutic social worker to help bring community-based services to juvenile offenders and eligible youthful offenders.

Mr. Banks said that a 2006 study of cases in the New York County youth part showed that three years after arrest, adolescents who participated in the diversion program had a recidivism rate of 30 percent compared with 80 percent for youth placed in facilities run by the Office of Children and Family Services for crimes that Mr. Banks said are typically less serious than the violent felonies with which participants in Legal Aid's program are charged.

George R. Goltzer, who heads the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said he supported Legal Aid's use of social workers at arraignments.

"A large percentage of people who come in contact with the criminal justice system have identifiable mental illnesses…[and] suffer terribly when they are incarcerated," Mr. Goltzer said. The earlier the defendants who need treatment more than punishment receive services, the better, he said.

Once they are indicted and the discovery process is set in motion, Mr. Goltzer said, "it's very difficult to stop the train."

Daniel R. Alonso, chief assistant to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said Mr. Vance supports "working with the courts and defense providers in identifying mentally ill offenders who are appropriate candidates for needed mental health care and social services. This Legal Aid project is an example of our cooperation in this undertaking."

Judge Jackson, the supervising judge, said, "[T]here's no doubt…that we wish we had the resources to provide mental health services for defendants as an alternative to incarceration."

However, she said that judges might have "reservations" about diverting defendants who have "extensive criminal histories but clearly have mental health problems."

She questioned whether it is most effective to try to identify mentally ill defendants at arraignments since they are a "very busy, busy place," and defendants may appear to be under the influence of drugs.

"That kind of thoughtful intervention and diversion really has to be done in a setting that's not quite as busy," Judge Jackson said.

But Mr. Banks said the Legal Aid programs have proven that the agency "can deliver enhanced services under difficult circumstances."

"We are ready to meet the challenges of providing lawyer and social worker services together in arraignments," he said.

Judge Jackson, however, said she is supportive of the Legal Aid initiative. "Maybe it will work. Maybe it will be just a handful of cases, but that handful will be successful. That would be great too."