Long overdue legislation to reduce or eliminate bail under $1,000 for defendants awaiting trial on non-violent misdemeanor offenses has been stalled in the State assembly for years, though current initiatives may address the worst effects of the current bail system. These reforms would significantly reduce Rikers Island’s population and the violence associated with overcrowding, benefitting both inmates and front line correction officers who could provide higher quality of care with fewer inmates in the system.
However, to maximize bail reform benefits, mental health assessment, treatment referral and follow-up must be provided for all pretrial defendants, since the majority of those held at Rikers have significant mental health issues or substance abuse problems, requiring drug treatment, counseling, education or employment assistance to stay out of jail. Systematic follow-up to ensure they are actually getting the services they need and tracking them for the duration of their involvement with the criminal justice system will prevent them from ending up back on the streets and ultimately back on Rikers Island in an endless cycle of mental illness, crime and suffering. This program has to be in place and functioning at 100 percent prior to release of any inmates or bail reform will fail.
Why? When deinstitutionalization began in the ’70s, mental institutions were closed with promises of treatment in the community, but this was not available for everyone who needed it. So what happened? This untreated population decompensated on the streets of New York and began to commit crimes that landed them on Rikers Island, where the “treatment” they receive is especially detrimental for those with mental health problems.
The Justice Policy Institute reports that “detention has become a new ‘dumping ground’ for… people with mental health issues… [but] far from receiving effective treatment [they] simply get worse in detention, not better.” There are numerous reports on the horrific effects of solitary confinement, lack of counseling services, over-reliance on “drug therapy,” attacks and bullying by other inmates–all the ills deinstitutionalization was supposed to end, continuing in the criminal justice system, but now overseen by correction officers with minimal, if any, training in psychology, versus experienced mental health professionals. The Office of Justice Programs notes, “[we] have increasingly recognized the scope of the mental health needs of youth involved in the juvenile justice system and the inadequacy of services to meet these needs.”
Indeed, in practice Rikers has become the de facto mental health institution for most of the city’s mentally ill population–but who is providing the treatment? Once bail reform is implemented, if there is no specific agency in place to provide mental health services, who will be held accountable for the actions of the mentally ill once they are released back onto the streets?
This serious public safety issue must be addressed proactively. The effects of spending months or even years behind bars while awaiting trial are devastating, both during and after incarceration, as demonstrated by the recent suicide of Kalief Browder, released when charges against him were dropped after being held in Rikers for over 1,000 days simply because his family could not afford his bail.
Indeed, incarceration in and of itself may be detrimental for mentally ill and young inmates: “Detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being, their education, and their employment… [and] may increase the odds [they] will recidivate, further compromising public safety,” notes the Justice Policy Institute. Many youthful offenders simply “age out” of their behavior, if they aren’t locked up for youthful indiscretions: “Thanks to the powerful effects of maturation, most ‘criminals’ naturally desist from their criminal activities and move on to a more conforming lifestyle.” However, “congregating youth together for treatment in a group setting causes them to have a higher recidivism rate and poorer outcomes… [including] higher levels of substance abuse, school difficulties, delinquency, violence and adjustment difficulties in adulthood.”
An experienced social work case manager can assess what services would benefit the accused offender, connect them to appropriate programs, and follow up to ensure they are receiving the recommended services up to their trial date and beyond; indeed, their participation and performance in these activities may affect judgment and sentencing. Case management covers intake, assessment, classification, referral, intervention, monitoring, evaluation and advocacy, with graduated sanctions for non-compliance; case management has a proven track record in reducing recidivism and cost.
The proposed legislation waiting in the Senate gives judges “clear authority to impose a range of pretrial release conditions, such as participation in drug treatment or a supervised release program,” but the current initiatives do not address this. Mental health assessment, treatment referral and follow-up are crucial to the success of bail reform, helping reduce prison overcrowding and improve released defendants’ quality of life while protecting public safety.