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City to reduce number of mentally ill in jail

By Juan Soto

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday a plan intended to reduce crime and the number of inmates sent to Rikers Island with mental health issues or substance abuse by increasing mental health treatment to individuals throughout the criminal justice system.

“For years, the criminal justice system has been the default for dealing with behavioral and mental health issues, but that approach alone does not best serve the public health or public safety,” de Blasio said.

The $130 million four-year allocation is intended to put an end to individuals “needlessly cycling” through the system.

The plan to identify individuals who need treatment services rather than jail time for minor offenses “will mean not only safer streets, but stronger neighborhoods and heathier people,” the mayor said.

Part of the plan includes training for police officers that will “enable them to better recognize behaviors and symptoms of mental illness and substance abuse.”

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) said the findings of the task force recommending a “shift from punitive sentences to therapeutic services is a welcome departure from the decades-old practice of using the criminal justice system to institutionalize people with mental issues.”

According to a report by the Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice System, about 400 people with mental or substance abuse issues were sent to prison at least 18 times in the last five years. This represents more than 10,000 jail admissions.

“We know that many of the issues that ultimately end in time behind bears start well before and last well after contact with the criminal justice system, and implicate many more players that the jail system alone,” said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “This is particular true for people with behavioral health issues.”

The plan will create a clinical drop-off center in Manhattan to “provide an option for individuals who need neither to be held for arraignment on low-level charges nor emergency room services.”

The center, and another one which is slated to open in early 2016 in another city borough, will prove the police “with a much needed alternative to jail for persons with mental health issues,” according to the task force.

The city will add 2,300 slots to existing supervised release programs for adults. It will also establish a new science-based risk assessment program for judges and service providers “that accurately identifies and diverts people who do not pose a high risk of reoffending or flight and can therefore be safely supervised in the community,” said the mayor’s office.

Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Lilliam Barrios-Paoli said, “For many with behavioral needs, the criminal justice system is a revolving door leading to multiple costly, short stays behind bars over the course of their adult lives.”

Police Commissioner William Bratton welcomed the city plan.

“NYPD often finds itself to be an agency of last resort in dealing with various issues involving individuals with mental health and substance abuse problems,” he said.

The New York State Nurse Association also supported the task force findings. “People suffering from behavioral health illness ought not to be punished for their health care needs,” said Jill Furillo, executive director of the organization. “Our society is safer in the end when illness is met with compassion.”

Reach reporter Juan Soto by e-mail at jsoto‌@cngl‌ocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.

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