September 26, 2023

On September 13, 2023, at a program hosted by the National Center for Access to Justice and the Access to Justice Initiative at Fordham Law School, former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman outlined a plan to close the infamous Rikers Island by 2027. “How do we close Rikers? What’s the secret potion to make it happen?” he asked. “It’s not so secret and it’s not so difficult. Mental illness is the key,” he said.

Today, more than half of people in Rikers have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and one in five has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Rikers is the largest provider of psychiatric services in New York City and one of the largest providers in the world.

Eighty-five percent of people held in Rikers are there pretrial. In August, people without a mental health diagnosis waited three and a half times as long for trial as their peers without a mental illness—193 versus 55 days, on average. For Black people with a mental illness, the disparities were larger still. On average, they were held in jail pretrial for 201 days.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who joined a panel moderated by NCAJ Legal and Policy Director Lauren Jones, said that the long jail times for people with mental illness can largely be attributed to underfunding of community mental health. “Even if the judge, defense attorney and prosecutor all agree that treatment is the best outcome, the person could still be in Rikers two months because there’s no place that can therapeutically address the person’s needs,” he said. For Black communities, he said, the problem of underfunding for mental health services is particularly acute.

Wesley Caines, Deputy Director of the Bronx Defenders, challenged people to imagine a new paradigm. “We’re ok with Black and brown people being incarcerated for mental health issues and other social issues that are triggered by a lack of resources,” he said. “Unless and until we can get to a place as a society where we say that it’s not ok for blackness to be a marker of dangerousness, or for mental health to be a marker of dangerousness, it’s not going to change,” he added.

Dr. Ayesha Delany-Brumsey, chief strategic growth officer at Fountain House, outlined a number of specific investments in community mental health that could make all the difference. “First, we need to build out a true mental health emergency response,” she said. “When you call 9-1-1 across most of the City, with a few exceptions the options are: law enforcement, EMS, or fire. We should be able to connect someone to a mental health provider in that moment,” she said. “Second,” Dr. Delany-Brumsey added, “We have to expand the focus of our community mental healthcare so it’s not just symptom focused but is whole-person focused.” She pointed to supportive housing and club house models as successful in providing community and support that people with serious mental illness need to thrive.

Judge Matthew D’Emic, who has presided over the Brooklyn Mental Health Court for more than 20 years and now co-chairs Mayor Adams’ Mental Health Task Force, agreed that expanding mental health treatment options is the key. Judge D’Emic described the case of a young man who was “floridly psychotic” but had been turned away from a hospital that found he did not pose an imminent threat to himself or others. The young man’s mother, Judge D’Emic said, could not manage him at home. “The options that are open for me are generally to arrest, or to release the person into the streets,” he said. “Arrest is generally the last thing I want to do, but if someone is dangerous I cannot just release them out into the streets and the hospitals can’t always keep them. Give me a different option,” he said.

DA Bragg underscored that addressing mental health differently is not only the key to closing Rikers but it is also a critical part of keeping the City safe. Research shows that people with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators of it. “We can do a whole lot of diversion. We can treat people and drive down crime,” he said. “That’s the recent history of our City.”

Judge Lippman agreed, “We’ve proven that we don’t have to send people to Rikers Island. Over the years we’ve been able to reduce crime and reduce the jail population at the same time. We’ve done it and we can keep doing it.”

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