New York Mental Health Diversion Court’s Progress Slowed by the Pandemic
COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on our country’s health care system. Each day, there are news stories about hospitals reaching full capacity as overworked doctors, nurses, and attendants struggle to keep up with patient care. In addition to straining medical resources, the pandemic has increased the need for behavioral health services, including those offered by mental health diversion courts. However, like many other public entities, courts have been limited by COVID-19, making it difficult for diversion programs to serve those with behavioral health needs. In New York City, where nearly one in every 25 citizens lives with a serious mental illness, these programs are essential.

According to a recent report, approximately “280,000 adult New Yorkers have [a] serious mental illness, such as diagnoses of schizophrenia or major depressive disorder accompanied by substantial functional impairment.” City officials believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the care needs and access challenges for this population, especially those experiencing homelessness or who have been involved in the criminal justice system. 

New York City has several mental health court programs that offer specialized services to defendants with certain mental illnesses. However, the pandemic has led to multiple court shutdowns, restricting the availability of mental health court diversion services throughout the city. According to a recent report, one New York program that the pandemic has impacted in this way is the Manhattan Mental Health Court (MMHC).

The MMHC is a referral-based mental health diversion court program that combines the efforts of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Special Litigation Bureau, a designated judge, and lawyers, with services provided through the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES). According to the program’s website, to be eligible for participation in the MMHC, a defendant must be 18 years old, charged with a non-violent felony offense, and diagnosed with a mental illness such as bipolar disorder, major depression, or schizophrenia. Those charged with violent felony offenses may be considered for program eligibility on a case-by-case basis.

Participation in the MMHC is voluntary, and defendants must agree to treatment before entering the program. Eligible defendants may be referred by judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and mental health agencies. Upon successful completion, program participants can plead to a reduced charge or charges and be sentenced according to the terms of a program-connected plea agreement. 

Like several other mental health diversion programs in the country, the MMHC's goal is to provide incarceration alternatives while holding defendants accountable for their actions. The program also seeks to help ensure that defendants receive treatment for their mental health conditions by providing comprehensive evaluations by medical professionals, linking them to the appropriate treatment services, and assisting them in gaining access to needed medications. The MMHC also provides defendants with access to vocational education and substance abuse treatment services.

According to a recent report, the MMHC program serves a limited number of defendants even when it is fully operational. In 2018, the program reportedly received 74 requests for referral. However, only 43 cases, approximately 58%, were referred. Of the 136 requests received in 2019, only 46 (about 34%) were approved for referral. Further, even before the pandemic, cases within the program moved slowly, averaging a reported 286-day waiting period from arraignment to mental health court, with the process lasting between 18 to 24 months. In March of 2020, the MMHC program had referred 3 cases, 12 were not referred, and 35 were pending. However, the court closed mid-month due to the pandemic, further slowing the program’s availability and progress.

The MMHC, like several other similar programs in the country, was designed to address the needs of those defendants who require mental health treatment and other services while offering an alternative to the standard criminal justice model. Often, crimes that diversion court defendants commit are connected to the state of their mental health. Mental health diversion programs can consider a participant’s condition and other related facts when determining the appropriate penalties for their conduct. Further, when those in need of support get the care and services they require, it may help minimize the need for future criminal justice intervention. However, to achieve these results and to have the desired community impact, it’s crucial that mental health diversion courts be widely available as well as fully operational.

If you or a loved one has a mental disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental disabilities. To schedule a consultation, contact us or call (509) 991-7058.
Suicide and its Impact on the Criminal Justice System
By Elizabeth Kelley and Francesca M. Flood
Whether you are a defendant, family member, criminal defense attorney, prosecutor, judge, law enforcement officer, academic, or mental health professional, this book provides much-needed information about a pervasive phenomenon––suicide in the criminal justice system.

For far too long, speaking about suicide was a taboo subject. Today, it is a topic we cannot avoid, and we are finally coming to terms with its pervasiveness across all races, ethnicities, religions, and professions. Yet despite this growing awareness, we have yet to acknowledge and address the arc of suicide in the criminal justice system.

In this seminal work, the authors enlist the insights of academic specialists, professionals within the criminal justice system, and individuals who have served time to bring voice to the subject of suicide within the criminal justice system. This unique book provides insights that have yet to be broadly examined. Whether you are a defendant, family member, criminal defense attorney, prosecutor, judge, law enforcement officer, academic, or mental health professional, this book provides much-needed information about a pervasive phenomenon––suicide in the criminal justice system.
Elizabeth Kelley
Criminal Defense Attorney
Elizabeth Kelley is a criminal defense lawyer with a nationwide practice specializing in representing people with mental disabilities. She is the co-chair of The Arc's National Center for Criminal Justice and Disability, serves on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Disability Rights, Criminal Justice Section Council, and Editorial Board of the Criminal Justice Magazine Learn more.
Additional Resources
Mental Illness and the Justice System
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Man shares journey from jail and mental illness battle to standout artist
 Ken Jackson is an artist, a cartoonist, a muralist, a writer - he's also a schizophrenic and a convicted felon.
The PA justice system often fails autistic people. Can these activists and judges bring reform?
From unnecessary confrontations with police to uninformed judges and needless incarceration, autistic people in Pennsylvania say the criminal justice system has long failed to meet their needs. 

Now, after a series of court-led panels, officials in the justice system and activists are working on reforms.

They share a common goal, but questions remain on where reforms should start and what their scope should be — whether change should be incremental and start with the courts, specifically judges, or should be more immediate and do more to keep individuals out of the justice system. 
LA Times Today: The toll of one man’s mental illness
Alarmingly, less than half of adults with mental health conditions received services in 2019.

In L.A. and around the region, people with mental illnesses are cycled through what can be a revolving door of temporary psychiatric holds and jail wards, never getting the long-term care they need before they are sent back to the streets.

L.A. Times senior reporter Doug Smith wrote about the mental health crisis we are facing and joined us with Sarah Dusseault who shared her personal story.
The youth mental health crisis is real, but teachers can't solve it alone
The U.S. surgeon general this month issued a stark warning about the state of mental health among America’s youth. Citing mounting evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to social isolation, feelings of hopelessness and self-harm among adolescents, his public health advisory urged immediate action to support young people’s mental health and well-being.

As professionals who work closely with schools, community organizations and young people, we’ve been sounding the alarm on this looming crisis since the beginning of the pandemic — so we welcome the surgeon general’s warning and call to action.
Brooklyn Man Shot by the Police Was Mentally Ill, Family Says
The killing of Eudes Pierre, 26, underscores the need for alternatives to having the police respond to mental health episodes, activists say.
A young man shot and killed by New York City police officers in Brooklyn on Monday was mentally ill and had previously encountered police officers during a suicide attempt, according to his family and the police.

Eudes Pierre, 26, from Crown Heights, was shot 10 times and killed when he lunged at officers with a kitchen knife early on Monday morning, near the Utica Avenue subway station on Eastern Parkway, the police said.
Representing People with Mental Disabilities: A Criminal Defense Lawyer's Best Practice Manual

Published by the American Bar Association. Topics include:

  • Competency
  • Sanity
  • Malingering
  • Neuroscience
  • Jail and Prison Conditions
Representing People with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Practical Guide for Criminal Defense Lawyers

Published by the American Bar Association. Topics include:

  • Co-Occurring Disorders
  • Testing
  • Competency
  • Risk of Violence
  • Mitigation.
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