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Brooklyn’s Mental Health Court celebrates one thousand graduates diverted from prison system

November 8, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
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Before the Brooklyn Mental Health Court was created in 2002, people accused of crimes who lived with mental health issues had two options — pleading guilty by reason of insanity or going to trial where, much more often than not, they would receive a prison term.

“The Mental Health Court represented a third way,” said Justice Matthew D’Emic, who has presided over the court since its inception. “An individual could come to the court, agree to go into treatment and avoid jail as a recognition that mental illness played some part in the criminal behavior.”

On Wednesday, all of the actors who participate in the Mental Health Court, from judges and attorneys, to the defendants, social workers, court employees and family members, gathered to celebrate the graduation of the thousandth person from the court’s programs.

Pictured from left: Erin McDermott, social worker; Cherie Foster, social worker; Ruth O’Sullivan, project and clinical director; Nancy Frost, social worker; Nelson Hill, case manager; Ilana LeGear, social worker; and Thomas Bellinger, case manager.

“It’s not just one thousand graduates,” said Hon. Sherry Klein Heitler. “It’s one thousand families, one thousand jobs; it’s thousands of people that the graduates were able to go into the community and meet. We really have to thank this extraordinary judge, Judge D’Emic.”

The Mental Health Court takes individuals accused of a crime who also have a mental illness and allows them to enter a program. If they complete the program, the defendants avoid prison sentences. The court has over a 70 percent success rate.

The celebration, which was led by Justice D’Emic, was held in the Supreme Court on Jay Street on Wednesday morning. The speakers included Justice Klein Heitler; Joyce Kendrick, from Brooklyn Defender Services; Hon. Lawrence Marks, the chief administrative judge for the state; Meg Reiss, from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office; Dawn Ryan, from the Kings County Legal Aid Society; and Greg Berman, from the Center for Court Innovation.

From left: Daniel Alessandrino, Hon. Matthew D’Emic, Greg Berman, Hon. Lawrence Marks and Hon. Sherry Klein Heitler.

In his remarks, Justice Marks pointed out that the court initially was planning on taking only non-violent criminal defendants, but that early on it became apparent that it would have to accommodate them as well. However, he pointed out that even violent defendants have thrived in the court’s programs.

“To date, approximately 45 percent of participants have faced top charges classified as violent felonies under New York law,” Justice Marks said. “Seventeen years and 1,000 graduates later, there is ample evidence that allowing violent offenders to participate in mental health court not only helps them but affords greater protection to the community.”

Marks also added that in recent years, the court has further expanded the number of defendants that it takes in and recently began to allow people diagnosed with neurocognitive disorders — such as intellectual and developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, and traumatic brain injuries — to participate.

From left: Hon. Anne Swern, Adam Mansky from the Center for Court Innovation, and Dawn Ryan.

Nearly everyone who spoke gave the bulk of the credit for the court’s success to Justice D’Emic, including the two graduates, Fishel Sherman and Antoine Thomas, who briefly spoke.

“The catalyst is Judge D’Emic, who not only praises their accomplishments, but also calls them on their stuff,” said Kendrick. “He can be stern, reassuring and quite funny at the same time. He allows clients to stand in front of the court to read their poems, rap and or even sing. We laugh together, we celebrate their accomplishments, but everyone in the room, including the court officers, shows amazing compassion when clients are experiencing hardships.”

“This court has become a lifeline for many of our clients and has provided them with a path to treatment, stability and a measure of hope,” said Ryan. “Of course, it is Justice D’Emic who has led the charge. It’s his passion, perseverance, intuition and dedication to the mission of this court that has paved the way.”

Court officers (from left): Doug Nolan, Kevin Carter, Peter Tam and Jay Greenberg.

Justice D’Emic pointed out that part of what makes the court successful was an unintended consequence — it became a community. He explained that because defendants have to regularly check in with him and other court staff, they often will get to know each other while waiting. He said that this has created a positive atmosphere in which participants support and encourage each other.

“This place saved me,” said Sherman. “When I first came here, I couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk. I was having anxiety attacks non-stop. The judge changed everything. He treated me so great, I couldn’t believe how he treated me. He treated me like I was his son. He was so incredibly devoted to making sure that I would succeed.”

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