Solving Jail Mental Health Crisis … Before Jail

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The Rikers Island jail complex has seen a sustained drop in annual admissions but, along with other city jails, still boasts an average daily population of more than 11,000 people.

Jarrett Murphy

The Rikers Island jail complex has seen a sustained drop in annual admissions but, along with other city jails, still boasts an average daily population of more than 11,000 people.

Reforms unveiled this week by the de Blasio administration were cast as an effort to improve services for the mentally ill on Rikers Island—an understandable focus, given the reporting over the past few months by The Times and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

But much of the plan focuses on keeping people from entering custody in the first place. That reflects two important truths: One is that jails and prisons are places where, no matter what reforms one puts in place, bad things will happen; the other is that too many people end up in city jails.

The mayor’s $130 million plan does call for better practices in city jails for dealing with mentally ill people, who have increased as a presence on Rikers Island in the past five years. Specifically, the program will deploy Crisis Intervention Teams to “de-escalate” incidents, increase access to substance abuse treatments and create specialized units for inmates with behavioral health issues. The plan also addresses what happens after release—calling for better discharge planning, among other steps—and before a person is arrested.

But a key focus is on what happens at arraignment, which is the true fork-in-the-road between going behind bars and staying out.

As City Limits has reported umpteen times, a large number of people in the city’s jails are there because they cannot afford bail—often very low bails associated with minor charges that are still too high for low-income people to pay and too cheap for a commercial bail-bondsman to post for them. This has the effect of upending lives, costing the taxpayer and sometimes perverting justice when people plead guilty in crimes they otherwise might have contested because it’ll get them out of jail earlier.

Mayor de Blasio’s plan will “add 2,300 slots to existing supervised release programs for adults and pilot a new, science-based risk assessment tool for judges and service providers that accurately identifies and diverts people who do not pose a high risk of re-offending or flight and can therefore be safely supervised in the community, continuing to work and meet other commitments while waiting for trial,” City Hall said in a statement earlier this week. It added: “The City will begin efforts to improve its bail system to reduce reliance monetary bail as a surrogate measure of risk by developing a scientifically-validated risk tool that judges can factor into their release decisions, similar to what has been done effectively in other jurisdictions.”

According to the report by the mayoral task force that helped shape de Blasio’s reforms, nearly a third of people who enter jail leave within 72 hours, suggesting their stay was necessitated only by delays in getting bail paid. According to the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, in 2012, the 44 percent of inmates in felony cases where bail was set never made bail; the figure for misdemeanors and violations was 47 percent. More than 40 percent of people in non-felony cases went inside on bails of less than $500 and stayed there until the case was disposed.

“There are way too many people sitting on very low bail,” says Elizabeth Gaynes, the executive director of the Osborne Association, which assists people who’ve had contact with the criminal justice system, and the co-chair of the mayor’s task force. “We’ve had clients out there on $500 bail for months.” She hailed the expansion of supervised release. “Personally, I was hoping that it would go further, to a nonprofit bail fund or other means to get people out. The report left a lot of openings for continued work. ”

Gaynes says the task force considered policy changes that were left out of the final report, largely because of concerns about what the city could afford. But there was, she adds, “broad agreement” about what must be done to reduce violence in jails.

The city has seen a huge drop in the number of admissions to jails in the past 15 years, with 125,000 entering in fiscal year 2000 and just 77,000 going in last fiscal year. But that still translates to an average daily population of 11,000 people, posing a challenge even if mental-health services are improved.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to have a situation that some incarcerated people aren’t going to do things that are going to infuriate the keepers,” she says, “It’s more important that those people just aren’t in jail.”