By Jessica Dye
NEW YORK, Dec 24 (Reuters) - With the number of mentally ill
inmates in New York on the rise, city officials have announced a
new initiative to help identify and address the mental health
needs of defendants who wind up before the city's criminal
During his weekly radio address on Sunday, New York City
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the program will give judges a new
third option between release and incarceration for criminal
defendants whose mental health issues can be successfully
managed outside jail.
At the moment courts only have two options, incarceration or
release on bail. There is no alternative to address their mental
health needs while defendants' cases are pending, said a
spokeswomen for the mayor's office, Samantha Levine.
New York state already has what are known as mental health
courts designed to handle cases involving mentally ill
defendants accused of non-violent crimes, with a dedicated judge
and specialized staff to address their particular needs.
The focus of those courts is the outcome of the case, while
the focus of the mayor's new program will be the defendant's
treatment and incarceration while his or her criminal case is
The number of inmates with mental health issues has been
climbing in recent years, according to the mayor's office. About
36 percent of inmates in New York City have some form of mental
illness, compared to less than 25 percent in 2005, as do 58
percent of female inmates and 42 percent of inmates between the
ages of 16 and 18, the city said.
In a statement, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson
welcomed the additional attention that the new program will put
on mental health issues in the criminal justice system.
"Far too often, we have observed mental health issues to be
among the factors leading people into the criminal justice
system," he said. "For at least a decade, we have been placing
an emphasis on treatment when it can be done without
jeopardizing public safety."
Under the new program, a court-based intervention and
resources team will quickly gather data and make recommendations
to judges about mentally ill defendants who have been arrested.
Those who have a significant mental health issue but do not pose
a serious risk of rearrest or flight will be released to
community-based supervision and services while their criminal
cases were pending.
A defendant who does not seem likely to commit another
offense but may be a flight risk will be eligible for new
alternatives to incarceration in which he or she can receive
mental health treatment and care, according to the mayor's
Defendants who are a danger to the community or might not
appear before the court will not be eligible for diversion, the
mayor's office said.
The judge in each case will evaluate the information about
the defendant's condition and have the final say about how he or
she is treated.
The administrative judge of the New York City criminal
courts, Barry Kamins, had no immediate comment on the program,
saying he had reached out to the mayor's office for more details
on how it would operate.
The announcement comes just weeks after a gunman suspected
of suffering from a mental health condition, Adam Lanza, killed
26 people in a rampage at an elementary school in Connecticut.
In his statement announcing the program, Bloomberg also said
that in addition to lowering incarceration rates and expenses,
it is designed to help courts better identify and tailor how it
handles a defendant's specific risks and mental health needs.
"If more New Yorkers who need mental health care and
community support can be helped to get their lives on track when
they've run afoul of the law, we will all be better off,"
Bloomberg said. "No one needs to be reminded any more of just
how important it is to get this group of people the care they
Bloomberg said the program is also designed to help lower
the rates of unnecessary incarcerations of the mentally ill.
City data shows that mentally ill defendants are less likely to
be able to post bail and more likely to stay in jail, for longer
periods of time, than inmates without mental health issues, even
if they have committed similar crimes.
That's because they often have fewer financial resources or
friends and family members to rely on, the mayor's office said.
The program, which is scheduled to start Jan. 1, will cost
the city approximately $3.3 million in start-up costs. The city
believes that it will save enough in incarceration costs to pay
for itself by its third year.
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