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Milestone reached, BWBA takes a look at the Brooklyn Mental Health Court

September 24, 2019 By Caroline Ourso
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The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association invited judges and lawyers of all backgrounds to the Brooklyn Bar Association on Monday night to hear Justice Matthew D’Emic, administrative judge of the Kings County Supreme Court, Criminal Term, and his colleagues speak about the Brooklyn Mental Health Court.

The court recently celebrated the 1,000th graduate from its inmate-patient program so BWBA thought it was appropriate to host a continuing legal education seminar with some of the major stakeholders in the court to discuss its progress.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” said attorney Joyce Kendrick of Brooklyn Defender Services, “and I’ve seen clients’ lives changed. It can take time to get them to the place where they’re saying, ‘Okay, I want to try this.’ Oftentimes I will say to them, ‘Why don’t we just try step one?’”

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Judge Matthew D’Emic speaks during a CLE on the Brooklyn Mental Health Court at the Brooklyn Bar Association on Monday.

Kendrick joined Justice D’Emic on the CLE panel alongside Assistant District Attorney David Kelly; Ruth O’Sullivan, a social worker; and Dr. Lauren Stossel, a psychiatrist at Rikers Island. All work within the Brooklyn Mental Health Court’s system.

The court provides an alternative to incarceration for people with serious mental illnesses. It was the first of its kind when it was created and has become a national model.

These illnesses include but are not limited to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and more recently, neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and ADHD, said O’Sullivan.

(L-R) David Kelly, Dr. Lauren Stossel, Ruth O’Sullivan, Joyce Kendrick and Judge Matthew D’Emic smile after presenting a CLE course on the Brooklyn Mental Health Court at the Brooklyn Bar Association on Monday.

Kelly, who is frequently involved in negotiations with crime victims, noted that defendants’ victims must generally give approval for mentally ill defendants to receive treatment instead of traditional prison time, if that is an option.

“They almost always approve treatment [over punishment], but they do sometimes say no,” said Kelly, who pointed out that usually only occurs in cases involving especially severe crimes. She added that the ultimate decision as to whether someone is eligible for the program is left to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.

“The balance I consider is public safety against the needs of the defendant,” said Kelly of his personal decision-making process.

Justice D’Emic, the only judge in the court, said that an unintended benefit of the program is that it has created a sort of community among its participants. He explained that because defendants are returned to the court once a week, members of the community get to know each other and are often very supportive of one another.

“Everyone knows each other,” he said, “It’s something I never originally considered, but it’s a good thing.”

Certain audience members questioned the rosy coloring of the presenters’ testimonies which recounted only success stories from the program, but when pressed, Justice D’Emic and his colleagues stood by the work of the court and its treatment program.

“Our graduation rate is well over 80 percent,” said Kelly.

Kendrick noted that while recidivism is an issue, many of the mandatory persistent defendants — those who are in and out of the prison system multiple times — who come into the program are treated successfully.

According to the Center for Court Innovation, 84 percent of active participants pass the programs associated with the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, which is responsible for a 46 percent reduction in the likelihood of rearrest of a participant and a 29 percent reduction in the likelihood of reconviction.

“At the heart of it, I think most of them want to be helped,” said Kendrick.

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