For mentally ill people who commit a serious felony, there have long been just two options: Go to prison, or enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, says The Village Voice. Defendants who choose the latter have been confined indefinitely at places like Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, the maximum-security hospital on Wards Island In New York State, where they can languish for years, maybe the rest of their lives. Today, mentally ill people arrested in Brooklyn have a third choice: They can try to get their case heard in Mental Health Court, where the primary objective is to place people in treatment programs–not prison.
As mental hospitals across the country have been closing, replaced by a rickety network of outpatient services, mentally ill people increasingly find themselves in jails and prisons. About 11 percent of inmates in New York prisons are mentally ill–about 7,500 people. In state prisons nationwide, the likelihood is greater than one in six that an inmate has a serious mental illness. It would be cheaper to treat them in their community. Mentally ill inmates are far more expensive to care for than other inmates, and they tend to stay in prison longer. Mental health courts represent an innovative attempt to tackle this problem; in recent years, they have become increasingly popular. There are now 97 across the country, in places like Anchorage, Seattle, Akron, and St. Louis. The Mental Health Court in Brooklyn, which opened in 2002, was the first of its kind in New York State. Unlike many other mental health courts, the one in Brooklyn focuses primarily on people charged with felonies. The offer to plead guilty and receive treatment can be a lifesaver.