April 20, 2024

Brooklyn Mental Health Court addressing mental illness in the criminal justice system

NEW YORK — The subway crowding death of Jordan Neely brought attention to mental illness in the criminal justice system.

Neely was a subway performer with multiple prior arrests. His family have said he struggled with depression and schizophrenia and got help.

CBS New York’s Lisa Rozner looked at a Brooklyn program that mandates treatment instead of prison.

Inside the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, the presiding judge, the Hon. Matthew D’Emic, amidst decorations, has a warm touch that helps establish a relationship with each participant, which is really important.

“If you do that, then, like any relationship, you don’t want to be disappointed in each other,” said Judge D’Emic.

The court was created in 2002 to provide treatment, instead of prison time, for people with serious mental illness who have committed non-violent crimes.

“A lot of times, it’s the mental illness that’s behind the crime,” Kendrick said. “And so if we can get people back on the road and get them treated, we can stop that cycle.”

Organizers say so far more than 1,000 adults with mental illness have been successfully transitioned from incarceration to treatment.

There are several steps to how it works.

First, a defense attorney and district attorney must agree to refer a case to a mental health court.

Then, a social worker and a psychiatrist do evaluations, including a risk assessment.

Third, if it is shown that the defendant is living with a serious mental illness and is not a public safety risk, then they are considered eligible for court.

Then, the district attorney and the defense attorney will work out a plea deal that includes a potential prison term if the defendant fails the program.

At the same time, the clinical team develops a treatment plan.

To begin the treatment plan, the defendant must first plead guilty to the charges.

The project director, Ruth O’Sullivan, assigns a case manager.

“The case manager is responsible for making those referrals and scheduling the appointments,” O’Sullivan said. “If you have someone with a serious substance use disorder who is also homeless, the appropriate placement would probably be a residential treatment program.”

Rozner asked Judge D’Emic how the court ensures that a defendant receives treatment but does not further harm anyone else.

“We have a lot of court appearances, and I know that my clinical staff stays in touch with the programs on a really daily basis,” D’Emic said. “And I can bring the defendant into court, adjourn the case to the next day and talk to them.”

The judge says all treatment programs are voluntary and he can issue a bench warrant if participants don’t comply.

Every borough has a mental health court, but numbers from the Administrative Office of Courts show that Brooklyn consistently has the most graduates.

For example, the judge says that 167 referrals were made in 2022. Of these, 100 became participants and 82 graduated.

Criminal defense attorney Jonathan Fink says clients are usually in the program for at least a year.

“That can be expanded if, depending on how, how the client responds,” said Fink. msgstr “They have step one, the client will receive a certificate.”

Advocates say a lack of affordable housing as well as health insurance, which is required for many treatment programs, is a challenge.

In 2019, the nonprofit Center for Court Innovation released a video highlighting a graduate of the program named Catrice.

“Before I came to the Mental Health Court, my life was much in shambles. I was homeless,” said Catrice, who did not share her last name. “When I graduated from the Mental Health Court, my life was coming together. I found employment.”

“I think there should be a Mental Health Court in every state, in every county because of what we’re seeing now, this rise in mental illness,” Kendrick said.

It is expanding.

New Hampshire recently became one of a growing number of states to establish statewide guidelines for mental health courts.

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