New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio believes he can fix New York City’s terrible problem within its criminal justice system and its poor treatment (and mistreatment) of people with mental illness. He’s putting some much-needed money where his mouth is — $130 million, to be specific.
The money will be used to help begin to reform how those with mental illness are treated while in custody, help shunt them over to treatment services as a first response, and train all of its police officers on how to respond to people with mental illness with compassion rather than violence.
But is it enough to address the problems of providing timely public mental health care to those in the criminal justice system, in a city of 8+ million?
New York City has, like most cities and states in the U.S., been in denial about its failing mental health system. Instead of shunting people with addiction problems into treatment, its criminal justice system has done what few industrialized countries do — throwing them in prison and hoping for the best.
Surprising to no one — except, perhaps, a politician — the burying-your-head-in-the-sand-and-hoping-the-problem-goes-away approach hasn’t worked. Locking people up with significant and serious mental health and substance abuse problems only moves the problem from society in general into the prison system. A prison system ill-equipped to handle such concerns.
What happens then? Any 5th grader could probably tell you: the system breaks. People die. Everyone points fingers.
Nowhere is that more clear than in New York City:
In New York, the portion of inmates at the city’s jails who are mentally ill has increased to nearly 40 percent in recent years, even as the overall number of people incarcerated has shrunk.
Many of these inmates are so-called frequent fliers, constantly cycling in and out of Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex. The task force report identified more than 400 people who had been jailed at least 18 times in the last five years, accounting for over 10,000 jail admissions during that period. It said that 67 percent of these inmates had “a mental health need”; 21 percent were severely mentally ill, meaning they had diseases like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder; and 99 percent had a substance abuse problem.
Help is On the Way for New York City
The mayor created a task force to examine the problem and offer solutions. The task force of city officials and community leaders released its long-awaited report on Monday detailing a wealth of suggested changes.
Some of the money will be used to help fund “drop-off centers:”
Among the many innovations suggested by the task force is the development of community based drop-off centers, where police officers with specialized training could bring people they have taken into custody for minor crimes. The centers would “provide an option for people who need neither to be held for arraignment on low-level charges nor emergency room services,” the report said.
Each center would have detox services, beds for short-term stays, and case managers who could make referrals to existing programs in the community. The first such center would be opened in fall 2015 in Manhattan and the second in an unspecified borough in early 2016, the report said.
Another suggested change includes 36-hour training courses for police officers on how to identify and interact with people who have behavioral health issues. This training will be offered to all NYC officers, rather than creating special behavioral response units, as other police departments have done. Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) have proven effective in other cities, such as Memphis. It’s unclear whether 36 hours of training will be enough to change how many police officers approach and respond to people who have a mental illness or are under the influence of a substance.
Given the enormous size of NYC’s criminal justice system and police force, it’s unlikely $140 million will be enough to fix these decades’ old problems. If 36 hours isn’t enough training to transform its police force, perhaps it will be just enough to make an officer think twice the next time they approach someone who appears to be struggling with behavioral issues.
But it’s an admirable good start. And perhaps, one day, America will treat the majority of its citizens in need of mental health or substance abuse treatment, rather than simply sending them to prison.
Read the full article: New York City Plans Focus on Mental Health in Justice System