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Public Defenders call for “Treatment Not Jail Act” after Mayoral announcement on mental health

November 30, 2022 Rob Abruzzese
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On Tuesday, Mayor Eric Adams made big news when he announced a new plan to address the City’s severe mental health crisis where he directed city workers to hospitalize any people deemed too mentally ill to care for themselves.

Mayor Adams’ plan calls for involuntary treatment of certain individuals who pose no threat of physical violence. A potentially controversial move, but one that was applauded by local public defenders, who took the opportunity to advocate for the passage of the “Treatment Not Jail Act” in conjunction with the news.

“We are heartened to hear that Mayor Adams acknowledges that community-based treatment and least-restrictive services must guide the path to rehabilitation and recovery,” said a statement issued by The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, the Bronx Defenders and other local public defender organizations. “He is correct that homeless New Yorkers with mental health conditions have the right to health care, housing, treatment, respect, dignity and the hope that their futures will be safe and illnesses treated.

“Moreover, he is also correct that New York has experienced decades of dysfunction when it comes to caring for people who live with mental health diagnoses and that we must no longer be guided by fear, that Albany must no longer ‘punt’ and it should instead finally enact smart solutions to a human crisis,” the statement continued.

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“Pending legislation in Albany, the Treatment Not Jail Act, offers a voluntary, court-based, structured, and proven-effective method of connecting those in the criminal legal system with underlying mental health issues with the treatment and services they need.”

The Treatment Not Jail Act is a bill sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos. When the bail laws were reformed years ago it directed judges to send cases to mental health treatment courts. Unfortunately, not everyone is eligible for treatment and this bill would expand that eligibility so that more people can access the mental-health courts.

It would also allow participants to enter into mental-health court programs without first pleading guilty to a crime, and it expands eligibility by eliminating charge-based exclusions.

“Rather than jailing people with underlying mental illnesses and similar disorders, and then abandoning them to a chaotic and unsupported transition process when they are released into the community, mental health and drug treatment courts along with the accompanying robust community services they provide, lead to greater public health and public safety,” said the statement issued by Brooklyn Defender Services and others. “People who successfully complete mental health or drug treatment courts have a substantially lower rate of re-arrest and meet other measures of success, such as continuing their education and obtaining employment.”

The City’s current plan is to increase training to police officers and EMS workers to “ensure compassionate care.” It changes a practice where in the past police would bring a mentally ill person to the hospital and they would often be discharged within a few days with only slight improvements on conditions. Instead, they would be held, even against their will, until they are stabled and there is a plan in place to connect them with ongoing care.

The City issued guidance on the removal of mentally ill people under Article 9 of the Mental Hygiene Law. It authorizes “designated clinicians” to evaluate people “who appear to be mentally ill and conduct themselves in a manner likely to result in serious harm to self or others.”

The memo goes on to say that a person may be removed to a hospital if they display an inability to meet basic living needs, even if they are not dangerous to themselves or others.

“A common misunderstanding persists that we cannot provide involuntary assistance unless the person is violent, suicidal, or presenting a risk of imminent harm,” Mayor Eric Adams said when he made his announcement on Tuesday. “This myth must be put to rest. Going forward, we will make every effort to assist those who are suffering from mental illness and whose illness is endangering them by preventing them from meeting their basic human needs.”

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