NYDN Editoral: A jail is not a hospital

A jail is not a hospital

Saturday, October 7, 2017, 4:05 AM

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and retired Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, architects of the plan to close Rikers Island within 10 years, got a crash course on how to move one of the mountains in their way — lessons that need to sink in fast, whether or not the jail complex stays open.

Roughly 1 in 5 inmates has a serious mental illness. How to improve their conditions instead of imprisoning them, where they cycle through jail cells before returning to city streets, was the subject of a forum Wednesday highlighting other cities’ success and just how far New York has to go.

In short: Very, very, very far.

At the forum, organized by the Greenburger Center, Metro-IAF and the Daily News, Miami Judge Stephen Leifman detailed the fruits of his 17 years leading the charge to steer mentally ill defendants to treatment: a large-scale program to get people with schizophrenia and other conditions who’ve committed crimes into monitored medical care as a condition of staying free.

Men and women in his jurisdiction sign privacy waivers, so that — imagine this — hospitals can share medical details and courts get alerted when patients stop refilling prescribed pills.

How far such a program could go in New York City to coax the desperately sick, often homeless, into steady care, before they hurt people.

Former Texas mental health official Leon Evans told Lippman and Mark-Viverito that a similar approach in San Antonio shut jails — yes, in a jail-’em-all state — saving tons of money.

New York has taken baby steps. Mental health courts refer defendants to programs pending dismissal of charges. Supportive housing aids 102 mentally ill people emerged from the justice system.

A hundred down — and untold thousands to go .

Lippman’s commission recognized the need for reliable treatment as an alternative to jail, part of a plan to reduce Rikers’ daily population of more than 9,000 to the 5,500 or less needed to relocate jails elsewhere.

Mayor de Blasio, who is all aboard the close-Rikers bus, has no hope of accomplishing that objective unless he follows other cities’ lead.

But even opponents of shuttering Rikers can see: Too many seriously mentally ill New Yorkers are left to spiral ever downward, to their detriment and ours, without care.

About The Author

About The Author

Cheryl Roberts
[email protected]

In addition to serving as Executive Director of the Greenburger Center, Ms. Roberts is the Corporation Counsel for the City of Hudson, New York and a licensed bond agent in New York State. Previously in her career, Roberts was a town judge from Columbia County, New York and served as a counsel to committees in both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate.