When police and prosecutors are unable to act, judges must be the “last line of defense” for mentally troubled individuals who run afoul of the law.
That was one of the conclusions at a conference of leading prosecutors and jurists at New York University’s School of Law examining the plight of the seriously mentally ill who are trapped in the justice system.
The use of jails and prisons as frontline treatment facilities for individuals with serious mental illness—for lack of adequate alternatives—is a “horrible American tragedy,” Judge Steven Leifman of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida said.
Christina Klineman, a Superior Court Judge in Indianapolis, added that if local authorities fail to provide diversion programs that police or prosecutors can use, judges should still try to find ways of ensuring the mentally ill are kept out of jail.
They are “the last line of defense” for protecting the mentally ill, she said.
The two judges spoke during a panel Friday at NYU’s Tenth Annual Conference on the administration of criminal law. They joined other speakers, including advocates, in calling for greater attention to diversion programs for the mentally ill.
“The criminal justice system should be the last resort for the mentally ill, not the first,” Leifman said, arguing that the lack of alternatives too often places the burden of care on prosecutors, judges and police officers, who lack the proper resources, training and funding to help mentally ill patients.
Participants in the conference cited studies showing that 40 percent of individuals with a mental illness will come in contact with the criminal justice system at some point in their lives—usually because family members call 911, not knowing what else to do.
Police receive 250 million calls each year, but only 25 percent of those calls are connected with an actual crime, said Rebecca Neusteter of the Vera Institute of Justice. Ten percent of those calls are made because someone with a mental illness is experiencing a manic episode.
But when the police become involved, the individual is handed over to the justice system.
According to Ronal Serpas, a professor of Criminology at Loyola University of New Orleans, if police officers had an alternative to arrest, they would take it.
But all they have to offer mentally ill patients “is the back of their car,” Serpas said.
That, he added, was a solution for no one.
The police role as first responders puts them in a difficult position, but at the same time makes it critical for officers to know where to take people suffering from mental illness other than jail, said Travis Parker, senior project associate at Policy Research Associates.
“Officers need an answer to the question: ‘divert the mentally ill to what?'”
He noted that in some cities, police have been given iPads to contact mental health professionals, instead of taking troubled individuals to jail.
Once an individual with mental illness is arraigned, however, prosecutors can step in to ensure mentally ill defendants are diverted to counseling and social services, the panel was told.
“Public safety is not defined by convictions and arrests — people need to feel safe and secure, they need housing and a job—and the criminal justice system removes that for so many people,” said Vermont Attorney General T.J Donovan, who argued prosecutors should use “restraint” in deciding whether to seek convictions.
Klineman brought up the case of a homeless man urinating in the street and raised the question, “what do I sentence him to?”
“If I put him on probation, I set him up for failure and we have more problems. If I release him, he doesn’t get any help,” Klineman said.
In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, home to the largest percentage of people with serious mental illnesses, decarcerating jails and providing an alternative for the mentally ill is a top priority for court officials.
Authorities there created the Criminal Mental Health Project to provide community-based treatment and support services to defendants suffering from serious mental illness and substance abuse disorders.
The program provides two types of services: pre-booking diversion training for law enforcement officers, and post-booking diversion to help individuals in jail and awaiting adjudication.
Justin Volpe, a young man who suffered from paranoia and substance abuse, said he was able to avoid prison though the program. His sentence was tossed out, and instead he was offered a job by the courts.
“That’s what people need,” Volpe told the conference. “I went from having no insight of my mental illness to working with other people in same situation. I assist people in community and get them help. I also have opportunity to train law enforcement and share my recovery story.”
In fact, Volpe was able to train the police officer who first arrested him. The officer told Volpe, “I’m surprised you’re still alive.”
Volpe takes participants in the program to out to lunch, or coffee, or even to play basketball.
“People don’t need another person telling them about their court dates and doctors appointments- giving them a list of things to do,” he said. “I give them a person-to-person feel,” he said.
Laura Usher, senior manager at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, commented that Volpe’s point was critical.
“The only way to treat someone with a mental illness… is like a person,” she said.
Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.