NYC Mayor announces comprehensive jail reform plan for people with mental illness

Empty Jail Cell
NYC jails and people with disabilities

A task force assembled by Mayor Bill de Blasio released a 20-page report on December 1, detailing a variety of steps for improving mental health services in the New York City’s jail system.

“This plan is a key component of Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to reduce unnecessary arrests and incarceration and to make the criminal justice system more fair,” the report stated. “By equipping law enforcement and corrections officers with more training and more options for effectively interacting with people with behavioral health needs, the action plan will advance the Mayor’s goal of deescalating interactions with law enforcement and help to improve relationship between the police and communities.”

The New York City jail system regularly admits about 80,000 inmates per year. From fiscal year 2010 to 2014, the percentage of that population with mental health needs increased from 28 to 38 percent, despite an overall drop in the number of people incarcerated. Seven percent of those inmates are deemed to have significant mental illness.

In the report, the Mayor’s Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System states that about more than 5,500 officers will undergo a 36-hour training course to “to enable them to better recognize the behaviors and symptoms of mental illness.” Over the long term, the training, which is based off a similar program in Los Angeles, will be incorporated into the curriculum the officers receive at the police academy.

For people being held for arraignment for low-level crimes or non-emergency services, the report calls for the creation of a system of community-based drop-off centers, in order to reduce the number of people in the jail system. The first one is set to open in Manhattan in 2015.

This service is particularly aimed at a population of an estimated 400 inmates, who have each been admitted at least 18 times in the past five years, almost all with mental health concerns and charged with low-level offenses.

Next, the report calls for expanded pre-arraignment health screening. While the system already screens for physical disabilities, it will now take a more active role screening for mental illness. Through this process, the task force is hoping the system will identify more inmates who would be better served in various diversionary programs, rather than through incarceration.

Upon release, the report calls for the creation of a Medicaid implementation team. Under current state law, as is the case in many other states, Medicaid services are automatically terminated upon incarceration. The purpose of the team is to assist newly released inmates with again becoming insured.

The report also recommends that the city improve its efforts to ensure newly released inmates receive transportation to their new residences or shelters, as well as referrals for mental health treatment.

The plan wil cost an estimated $130 million over four years.

“It’s a comprehensive plan that, if implemented, could have a significant impact,” Jennifer J. Parish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center, told the New York Times.