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Mentally ill criminals: More resources needed

A jail cell at a facility in New

A jail cell at a facility in New York. Credit: AP

When those with mental illness commit crimes, authorities are faced with the complex process of treating the illness while prosecuting the suspect.

Scores of criminal defendants who appear in the borough’s courts each year suffer from some type of mental illness.

Isn’t it more important to get those individuals the help they need rather than just throwing them behind bars?

Both advocates and legal experts agree that treatment is key to breaking the cycle of criminal behavior for those defendants faced with a mental illness and set them on a healthier path.

When done properly, it serves both the community as a whole and the sick person facing charges.

The borough’s Mental Health Court has been viewed an effective and necessary alternative for defendants with mental illnesses. And the court has been a success in a majority of the cases that are referred to it.

Defendants in Mental Health Court are diverted into treatment programs and earn non-jail sentences of probation or a conditional discharge if they complete treatment. They potentially face jail time if they don’t finish the program.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers point to the borough’s Mental Health Court as an effective and necessary alternative for defendants with mental illness, but agree that a lack of resources has prevented the court from helping even more people.

Housed in state Supreme Court, St. George, the court is available to defendants charged with felonies, typically non-violent ones, who mental illness experts believe can be treated.

Defendants accused of arson, weapon possession, homicides or driving while intoxicated are generally not eligible.

But the system faces a critical problem: In-patient beds are always in short supply, prosecutors and advocates told the Advance.

And if those beds or other forms of treatment aren’t available, defendants could be denied having their cases diverted to Mental Health Court.

Programs are limited on Staten Island. As a result, some defendants have had to get treatment in other boroughs or even out of state.

“That’s probably the most frustrating thing,” said Assistant District Attorney Ann Thompson, who handles mental health cases for the district attorney’s office. “We don’t have enough resources. If we don’t have the resources, that person is not going to be successful in Mental Health Court.”

District Attorney Michael E. McMahon said he’s asked the state Office of Court Administration for more resources for the court.

Those resources would include additional in-patient beds, expanded programming, the needed staffing for both and the necessary funding.

Given the success reported by those involved with Mental Health Court cases, we urge that those added resources be made available, now.


While there is some debate between defense attorneys and the D.A.’s office over the number and selection of cases referred to Mental Health Court, there is another gaping hole in the system most agree needs to be filled.

McMahon told the Advance he’s concerned there’s no mental-health type court available to misdemeanor offenders in Criminal Court. The Mental Health Court addresses felony issues in state Supreme Court.

Since taking office in January 2016, the district attorney has advocated for the establishment of a Community Court, similar to the Red Hook Community Justice Center, in Brooklyn. There are also two Community Courts in Manhattan and one in the Bronx.

The multi-jurisdictional court deals with misdemeanor offenders, many are persistent offenders, and tries to identify problems in their lives that may be what drives their criminal behavior.

The Red Hook court, for example, has a variety of sanctions and services at its disposal, including restitution projects and treatment for drug, mental-health and trauma-focused issues.

Such a court would have “the biggest impact” in potentially breaking the criminal cycle of recidivist misdemeanor offenders, including those with mental-health issues, McMahon told the Advance.

“Right now, there’s nothing for it,” he said.

A Community Court “would fill a great void dealing with people whose mental illness is gliding a path into criminality,” Paul Capofari, McMahon’s top deputy, told the Advance.

We join with the D.A.’s office and others in calling for the establishment of a Community Court on Staten Island to fill that void.

It would be be significant step toward both protecting the residents of our borough and helping those with mental health and other disorders.

(UNTREATED: This is part of a series on the care of Staten Island’s mentally ill. Click here for additional stories in the project.)