Nonviolent offenders who suffer from mental illness should be treated, not locked up, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas told teachers, social workers and other professionals gathered at Hofstra University in Hempstead on Tuesday.
Public safety can be achieved by treating the issues — be it mental illness or substance abuse — that lead to the criminal behavior, said Singas whose office organized the annual conference.
“So, it’s no longer a conversation about how can we put people away for the longest time possible,” she said. “It’s about how can we treat people so that they don’t reoffend, and, by doing that, ultimately we’re keeping our community safer.”
Youth and mental health is the theme at the 11th annual conference sponsored by the Long Island Youth Safety Coalition. The coalition is comprised of law enforcement agencies, school districts and others charged with keeping those on Long Island between ages 18 and 24 out of the criminal justice system.
In Nassau, it’s not known how many people arrested this year in that age group suffered from mental illness, said Miriam Sholder, a spokeswoman for Singas. Among the crimes committed were petty larceny, home break-ins, and drug-related crimes, Singas said in an interview.
“We find that a lot of it can be attributed to mental health,” she said.
The daylong event, with about 300 in attendance, according to Singas, included workshops and panel discussions ranging from suicide prevention to eating disorders and body image.
Melissa Levy, a social worker who deals with elementary and middle school children at the Lindenhurst School District, was one of the attendees.
“This is a great opportunity to get so many resources in one place,” she said in an interview after emerging from the “Health & Safety Connections” workshop.
Incidents of depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation, and suicide threats are on the rise, she said.
“More kids are being hospitalized,” Levy said.
Neva Hacker, a psychotherapist with a private practice in Commack, went to a workshop on brain trauma and how it impacts children’s learning ability and mental health.
Her next workshop was about the influence social media and hip-hop have on mental health.
“I came because of a lot of interesting topics,” Hacker said.