Thursday, August 19, 2004

Mental Health Courts: Where Justice & Mercy Meet

JENNIFER GONNERMAN, VILLAGE VOICE - Every Tuesday morning, Judge Matthew D'Emic's courtroom brims with people who have unusual stories. A college student, convinced he was Jesus Christ, went on a robbery spree. A 19-year-old gave birth at home, then headed for a window and dropped her baby out. A young man burned down his mother's apartment after he heard voices ordering him to light the curtains on fire. A teenage girl, arrested for a minor crime, once tried to boil a puppy in front of her family.

For mentally ill people who commit a serious felony, there have long been just two options: Go to prison, or enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Defendants who choose the latter have been confined indefinitely at places like Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, the maximum-security hospital on Wards Island, where they can languish for years, maybe even the rest of their lives. Today, mentally ill people arrested in Brooklyn have a third choice: They can try to get their case heard in Mental Health Court, where the primary objective is to place people in treatment programs—not prison.

As mental hospitals across the country have been closing, replaced by a rickety network of outpatient services, mentally ill people increasingly find themselves in jails and prisons. An estimated 11 percent of inmates in New York state prisons are mentally ill; that's about 7,500 people. In state prisons nationwide, the likelihood is greater than one in six that an inmate has a serious mental illness.

There is a hefty price tag for locking up all these people, of course; it would be cheaper to treat them in their community. Mentally ill inmates are far more expensive to care for than other inmates, and they tend to stay in prison longer.

Mental health courts represent an innovative attempt to tackle this problem, and in recent years these courts have become increasingly popular. There are now 97 across the country, in places like Anchorage, Seattle, Akron, and St. Louis. The Mental Health Court in Brooklyn, which opened in 2002, was the first of its kind in New York State. Unlike many other mental health courts, the one in Brooklyn focuses primarily on people charged with felonies—drug sales, assault, robbery, arson, kidnapping, grand larceny. . .

There are four "phases" in Mental Health Court, and when defendants stay out of trouble for a certain period of time, they receive a certificate from the judge. After completing a treatment program—which lasts at least a year—a defendant "graduates" from the court, meaning that the felony is dismissed and the person is completely free. So far, the court has 19 graduates. Each received a handshake from the judge, applause from the audience, and a gift from the court's clinical director—usually an appointment book or a disposable camera or a box of chocolates.

This strategy of lavishing attention and giving regular rewards seems to work. "These are people who have been really sick their whole lives," says Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, who is often in the court. "Everyone's telling them how messed up they are, that they're a complete failure. They haven't had much positive response from anybody in authority their whole life, and here's a judge telling them they did a good job. They just brighten up when he pays attention to them." (more...)

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