A Brooklyn judge is trying to change the way mental health is treated in NY

June 9, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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Justice Matthew D’Emic, the administrative judge of the Kings County Supreme Court, Criminal Term, has been instrumental in advocating for a more nuanced, compassionate approach toward the treatment of mental illness within the justice system.

From left: Stephen Chiaino, Mark D’Addona, Hon. Matthew D’Emic, and Greg D’Addona. Eagle photo by Robert Abruzzese.

“Our jails have become the largest mental health providers in our country,” D’Emic said. “Los Angeles County, Cook County, and Rikers Island being the largest.”

Speaking at the Bay Ridge Lawyers Association meeting on Wednesday, May 31, Judge D’Emic discussed his work with the New York State Judicial Task Force on Mental Illness and the key recommendations made by the Task Force.

From left: Shannon Colabrese, Christopher Caputo, Mario Romano, Ryan Mahoney, and Yolanda Guadagnoli. Eagle photo by Mario Belluomo.

In March 2020, the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators recognized the critical need to better handle mental health issues within the court system and established the National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Courts’ Response to Mental Illness. Composed of a dedicated group of judicial professionals, including Judge D’Emic, the task force set out to reform the courts’ approach to severe mental illness.

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In early 2023, then Acting Chief Judge Anthony Cannataro, inspired by the accomplishments of the national task force, decided to establish a dedicated Task Force for New York. Understanding the significance of the work to be done and the leadership required, Cannataro appointed Judge D’Emic to chair this significant initiative.

From left: Dominic Famulari, Stephen Spinelli, Stephen Chiaino, Suzanne Gennusa, and Santorini Rivera. Eagle photo by Mario Belluomo.

He was the obvious choice for the role because he has presided over the state’s first mental-health court since it was created in 2002. D’Emic expressed concerns about the overrepresentation of mentally ill individuals in jails and prisons and emphasized the urgent need for changes that support their recovery while also benefiting society.

The Task Force is expected to implement recommendations put forth by the National Task Force, which include comprehensive training for judges and court professionals, reforming competency trials, establishing best case management practices, and improving deflection and diversion to treatment.

Lola Waterman and William Gillen. Eagle photo by Mario Belluomo.

“Putting people in jail or prison who suffer from a mental illness certainly undermines their recovery and leads to an increased risk of reoffense,” Judge D’Emic emphasized. “So it’s not good for society and it certainly isn’t good for them.”

Citing a need for locally involved task forces, D’Emic asked each administrative judge from each judicial district to select a judge to lead a local task force to implement changes. He plans to meet with each of these task forces personally, reinforcing his commitment to the cause. The goal is to ensure the reforms are implemented effectively at the local level, ensuring a more humane and empathetic justice system throughout the state.

From left: Adam Kalish, William Neri, and Ryan Mahoney. Eagle photo by Mario Belluomo.

The Task Force’s recommendations include promoting deflection and diversion to treatment options, reforming the Competency to Stand Trial System, and establishing case management best practices. It also advises the creation of multiple civil court options that are easily accessible to individuals, families, and mental health systems. Moreover, the report highlights the importance of educating judges and court professionals about mental health, ensuring the well-being of judges, and fostering a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“This is a topic of the utmost importance to the law and our society,” said Judge D’Emic. “It is finally in the forefront of our national state, local, political campaigns and tragically on the front pages of our newspapers. It’s an issue that affects millions of lives around the world and is finally getting our attention and hopefully our understanding.”

From left: Helen Galette, Mary Ann Stathopoulos, Hon. Bernard Graham, and Suzanne Gennusa. Eagle photo by Mario Belluomo.

Since then-Acting Chief Judge outlined his plans in his State of the Judiciary speech back in February, Hon. Rowan Wilson has been appointed as the Chief Judge of the State and Hon. Joseph Zayas has taken over as the Chief Administrative Judge, which technically means that the state-level task force is in jeopardy under the new leadership. However, D’Emic said that he has met with Justice Zayas to discuss the task force and he is optimistic that it will continue under the leadership of Wilson and Zayas.


Bay Ridge Lawyers Association’s Upcoming Annual Dinner

Bay Ridge Lawyers Association is set to honor a trio of distinguished past presidents who played pivotal roles during the COVID-19 pandemic at their 2023 Annual Cocktail Reception and Dance.

Slated for June 15, 2023, from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. at The Vanderbilt at South Beach on Staten Island, the event will honor the last three presidents including Mary Ann Stathopoulos, William Gillen, and current president, Dominic Famulari.

“This year it is in honor of three incredible past presidents, our colleagues, our friends — Mary Ann Stathopoulos, William Gillen, and Dominic Famulari,” said past president Stephen Chiaino. “This group kept us together through an unimaginable pandemic. The association is now bigger, stronger, better for all three of their efforts. We need our members to turnout, I understand it is going to be in Staten Island, but if you can be there for them, we’d really appreciate the support.”

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