Pilot program in Queens is speeding up psychiatric evaluations for jailed individuals

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With an eye on reforming the local criminal justice system — and potentially closing Rikers Island — the city embarked on a pilot program to streamline court-ordered psychiatric evaluations for alleged criminals charged in Queens.

According to Correctional Health Services, the NYC Health + Hospitals branch providing medical and mental health services to the city’s jails, an individual ordered to undergo psychiatric testing spends about three times longer in custody than members of the general population arrested on similar charges.

In June, the city launched a pilot program to streamline the “730 evaluations,” which a judge may order to determine whether a criminal is fit to stand trial. The goal of the pilot program is to complete the evaluation process within seven business days for those charged with a misdemeanor, and within 14 business days for those charged with a felony.

Through the 730 evaluation process, two qualified psychiatrists or psychologists must interview and evaluate an alleged criminal, then submit a report to the judge determining the defendant’s competency. Since the pilot program launched in June, 84 streamlined evaluations have been completed in through Correctional Health Services and the Queens Forensic Psychiatric Evaluation Court Clinic.

By contrast, 473 psychiatric evaluations were completed in Queens in all of 2017.

“A fair and humane criminal justice system means ensuring that people are not detained for any longer than necessary. This is particularly true for those who may have issues that trigger the requirement of a court-ordered psychiatric exam,” said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “This ambitious project is aimed at reducing the length of time it takes to undergo the exam, and will complement the city’s work to reduce the number of people in jail and make the process fairer and more effective.”

Reducing the jail population is critical toward the city’s goal of closing Rikers Island by the year 2030 in favor of a borough-based jail system. In August, the city announced plans to build four new jails, one in each borough (including Kew Gardens in Queens) that would each house no more than 1,500 prisoners.

This would require a significant reduction of the jail population, which numbers at about 9,000 on any given day, according to a statistic from the Queens District Attorney’s office published in January of this year. Expediting psychiatric evaluations is one way of helping the city lower its incarcerated population, as it would significantly reduce a prisoner’s stay in a city correctional facility.

“In this instance, we can help reduce the length of detention by improving our own psychiatric evaluation processes, streamlining information exchange with our colleagues at NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue and NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, and strengthening coordination with partner agencies,” said Dr. Patsy Yang, senior vice president of Correctional Health Services. “As the city moves to close Rikers Island, we are hopeful this pilot program will serve as an example of replicable improvements that can be made to lessen the health impact of incarceration.”

As noted, Correctional Health Services developed the expedited evaluation program with the assistance of many partners, including the Queens District Attorney’s office, the Legal Aid Society, Queens Legal Associates, the Assigned Counsel Plan, the New York State Office of Court Administration, NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue, NYC Health +Hospitals/Elmhurst and the city’s Department of Corrections.