The jail rethink we really need: Other places have a saner way to handle the mentally ill cycling in and out of lockup

Arrest the urge to arrest. (Theodore Parisienne/for New York Daily News)

Chuck and I had an opportunity to meet with Cheryl Roberts and Francis J. Greenberger while in New York City this past fall.  We discussed their pilot program to develop an alternative to incarceration pilot facility to provide a secure “locked” therapeutic environment for those with serious and or chronic mental illness or personality disorders.

Laurie Goldstein

Today the New York Daily News printed an Op Ed by Green burger Center Executive Director Cheryl Roberts about the need to rethink the jail closure plan.  There are better ways to provide treatment and rehabilitation to people living with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders and to end the cycle of homelessness and incarceration.

The city of Albany recently changed the name of the county jail from the Albany County Correctional Facility to the Albany County Corrections and Rehabilitative Services Center to reflect its broader mission to provide housing and services to homeless people.  Most importantly, staff from nonprofit organizations and civilians employed by the Sheriff’s department will provide these services outside of the criminal justice system.

In Florida, over the past two decades, nearly 9,000 people have been referred to a program created by Miami Dade County Judge Steven Leifman to divert individuals with serious mental illnesses away from the criminal justice system and into comprehensive community-based services. Annual recidivism rates among participants went from 75% to 20% and the jail population dropped by 40%, allowing the county to close one of its jails and save $12 million a year.

As New York City finalizes its plan to close Rikers, more diversion and less jails space is needed.

Not long ago, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple changed the name of the county jail from the Albany County Correctional Facility to the Albany County Corrections and Rehabilitative Services Center to reflect its broader mission to provide housing and services to homeless people. Most importantly, staff from nonprofit organizations and civilians employed by the sheriff’s department will now provide these services — outside of the criminal justice system.

The cost to reconstruct the cells was $10,000. Things like televisions and kitchen appliances were donated.

Among the first clients to be admitted will be people released from jail who find themselves homeless. The goal is of course to keep them from cycling back into the criminal justice system.

Chances are Apple’s plan will save Albany County taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, make the city safer and save lives. That’s what happened in Miami-Dade, Fla., when a judge started providing services and treatment to people who constantly cycled in and out of jails, hospitals or homelessness.

Over the past two decades, nearly 9,000 people have been referred to a program created by Judge Steven Leifman to divert individuals with serious mental illnesses away from the criminal justice system and into comprehensive community-based services. Annual recidivism rates among participants went from 75% to 20%. The jail population dropped by 45%, allowing the county to close one of its jails and save $12 million a year.

According to Miami police, officer shootings of people with serious mental illness went from two a month to six in the last eight years, over a time period during which the number of arrests in Dade County went from 118,000 to 54,000.

To build on this success, Dade County just broke ground on its own “one-stop shop” facility to allow judges the ability to provide people with serious mental illnesses accused of misdemeanors or low-level felony level crimes with an off-ramp from the criminal justice system with the goal of never seeing them again, at least not behind bars.

This facility will offer treatment for mental health, substance abuse, and primary medical care needs, including eye and dental care; a court room; a crisis stabilization center where police can bring someone instead of arresting them; short- and longer-term residential space; a day activity program to teach self-sufficiency skills; and a supportive culinary employment program.

As New York City grapples with how to replace Rikers in the name of progressive reform, it’s still not too late to consider building “one-stop shops” like Albany and Dade County.

New York City has already demonstrated a remarkable and unprecedented ability to reduce the jail population. Now, it must address the core populations that will make further reductions more difficult.

The host communities of the proposed borough-based jails and advocates want smaller facilities. The shortest route to delivering them is to do what Albany and Dade have done — to make room elsewhere to better serve people with specific chronic needs such as housing, mental health and substance-abuse treatment — none of which are or should be the forte of jails or the city’s Correction Department.

As it moves jail beds out of Rikers and into the boroughs, the city has a rare opportunity to build more treatment and rehabilitative beds, and to finally right the wrong of the decades-long mass incarceration of people with mental illness. Incarcerating this population has not been fair, effective or fiscally responsible to them or their families, nor to corrections officers or communities.

Now is the time to ensure that mental health treatment is provided outside of the criminal justice system and in the public health system, where it belonged in the first place.

Roberts is executive director of the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice.

Posted Sept 17th, 2019 New York Daily News

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