NYC Will Screen Inmates For Mental Illness Before Jailing Them, And The Rest Of The Nation Should Take Note

After a study on mental health in the New York City criminal justice system produced alarming data, Mayor Bill de Blasio is proposing to overhaul the entire system. On Monday, de Blasio announced a plan to screen for mental illness before arraigning suspects of low-level crimes, with the immediate goal of obtaining treatment for affected individuals rather than incarceration. The ambitious plan seeks to break the pattern of arrest, incarceration, and release for low-level offenders with mental illness, who perpetually go in and out of the system because nobody bothers to get them help.

In June, de Blasio assigned the Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System to assess the gaps in the city's current systems and identify targeted solutions for breaking the cycle of incarcerating mental-ill individuals for minor offenses. The task force found that in New York City prisons, where more than 11,000 people are incarcerated, almost 40 percent of that population have some form of mental illness. And about 400 people have been jailed at least 18 times in the last five years, as if their lives were just a rotating door sending them between prison and the streets on repeat.

These findings have formed the basis for de Blasio's screening plan, which would allocate $130 million over the next four years to introduce mental health treatment at every step of the criminal justice process. The task force identified five major points of contact in the process and specific solutions for each.

On the Street

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At the very first stage of the criminal justice process, de Blasio is proposing expanded training for law enforcement to better recognize the behavioral patterns of mental illness and learn how to engage with these individuals in a non-stigmatizing manner. The training would also help officers assess the best facility for the suspect's specific symptoms as alternatives to jail.

From Arrest to Disposition

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At this stage, a "risk assessment instrument" will be adopted by either a pretrial agency or by probation to evaluate which supervised release programs would be most appropriate for each defendant. This instrument will assist judges and service providers in forming more accurate decisions about the defendants and their level of risk in the community.

This is also where the crucial screening process comes in. De Blasio plans to launch a pilot program in Manhattan within the next year that will screen every arrested person for physical and mental health needs before arraignment. Those who are flagged for mental illness behaviors will be recommended for possible diversion services instead of incarceration.

In Jail

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Reducing violence is the ultimate goal at this stage, and is a crucial piece of the overall plan. The Department of Corrections would work with crisis prevention teams trained in de-escalation and symptom identification to help prevent violent situations from arising. Four existing Mental Observation Units will be converted into centers offering more intensive and frequent mental health care in an attempt to reduce inmate self-injury and violence.

Release and Reentry

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De Blasio's plan proposes to expand current discharge programs for individuals with mental illnesses who are at high-risk and medium-risk of reentering prison. In-jail teams work with inmates before they are released to assist them with finding housing, employment, and continued treatment. A Medicaid implementation team will help all eligible individuals are enrolled in Medicaid coverage upon release.

Back in the Community

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The Department of Homeless Services will launch a housing program focused on individuals with mental health needs and a history of incarceration. Initially, the program will create 267 permanent housing slots, but a housing planning team will assess how to expand this program long-term. Supportive employment programs will also be implemented to help these individuals become self-sufficient and break the cycle of incarceration once and for all.

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