Panel to Create Plan to Reduce Number of Mentally Ill People in New York City Jails

Joseph Goldstein
NY Times
June 1, 2014

Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked several of his commissioners and aides to provide him with a plan by September to reduce the rate of incarceration among New Yorkers with mental illness.

The effort, which City Hall will announce on Monday, is the administration’s first major criminal justice initiative. Named the Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System, it will include recommendations from the police and correction commissioners, the Manhattan district attorney, hospital administrators and judges.

The initiative comes at a time when the city’s jail system is struggling to manage a large number of mentally ill inmates. The Department of Correction is investigating the death of a mentally ill homeless veteran in February who had been left unattended for hours as the temperature in his cell climbed above 100 degrees.

“For far too long, our city’s jails have acted as de facto mental health facilities,” Mr. de Blasio said in a statement, in which he explained that he was directing the task force to develop “innovative strategies to transform, reform and update this city’s criminal justice system” and figure out how “we can provide real, lasting mental health and addiction treatment for those in need.”

While the task force will look at the treatment of mentally ill inmates on Rikers Island, it will also seek ways to reduce the number of people with mental illness who end up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

Elizabeth Glazer, the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator and one of the task force leaders, said that the group would seek ways to encourage alternatives to arrest and prosecution.

“If someone picks up the phone and calls 911 because they see someone acting out on the street, then what does the police officer do?” Ms. Glazer said. “Is this criminal behavior? And a lot of things can be described as criminal behavior, but the best intervention is not necessarily an arrest. What’s the best way to make a diagnosis? Is it up to the officer to make that diagnosis?”

Ms. Glazer said the task force would weigh a number of possible changes, such as teaming officers with social workers or other mental health professionals and providing more intensive training to officers on identifying and dealing with individuals with mental illnesses.

Part of the goal, she said, would be to provide police officers with more options when they respond to the 100,000 calls received each year regarding “emotionally disturbed persons,” a catchall term that covers a range of mental health issues.

The task force’s review of the Police Department’s interactions with the mentally ill is likely to examine its handling of so-called quality-of-life offenses, generally low-level infractions that have been aggressively enforced under the leadership of Commissioner William J. Bratton. These offenses account for a significant percentage of arrests.

“It’s something we have to look at — how these two things intersect,” Ms. Glazer said.

The task force, she said, will also examine ways to provide better mental health care following release from the city’s jails to decrease recidivism.

Dr. Ramanathan Raju, a member of the task force and the president of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, said public hospitals have to explore how to better engage “with the mentally ill after they leave the criminal justice system, so they stay connected to the hospital and the treatment component, and so they don’t regress back to their illness.”

There are “a lot of things we can do better,” he said. One proposal that could receive consideration from the task force, Dr. Raju said, would be to track the medication history of some patients to see whether they are filling prescriptions they need as part of their mental health treatment. Another proposal would be to send a social worker to the addresses of mentally ill patients after their release from jail to check up on them, he said. “When they go back to their communities, do we engage them to seek care?” Dr. Raju asked.