Where Justice and Mercy Meet

In Brooklyn's Mental Health Court, compassion is the rule

Every Tuesday morning, Judge Matthew D'Emic's courtroom brims with people who have unusual stories. A college student, convinced he was Jesus Christ, went on a robbery spree. A 19-year-old gave birth at home, then headed for a window and dropped her baby out. A young man burned down his mother's apartment after he heard voices ordering him to light the curtains on fire. A teenage girl, arrested for a minor crime, once tried to boil a puppy in front of her family.

For mentally ill people who commit a serious felony, there have long been just two options: Go to prison, or enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Defendants who choose the latter have been confined indefinitely at places like Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, the maximum-security hospital on Wards Island, where they can languish for years, maybe even the rest of their lives. Today, mentally ill people arrested in Brooklyn have a third choice: They can try to get their case heard in Mental Health Court, where the primary objective is to place people in treatment programs—not prison.

As mental hospitals across the country have been closing, replaced by a rickety network of outpatient services, mentally ill people increasingly find themselves in jails and prisons. An estimated 11 percent of inmates in New York state prisons are mentally ill; that's about 7,500 people. In state prisons nationwide, the likelihood is greater than one in six that an inmate has a serious mental illness.

Judge Matthew D'Emic: "In my mind, I have to always balance the needs of the defendant and their family versus public safety."
photo: Cary Conover
Judge Matthew D'Emic: "In my mind, I have to always balance the needs of the defendant and their family versus public safety."

There is a hefty price tag for locking up all these people, of course; it would be cheaper to treat them in their community. Mentally ill inmates are far more expensive to care for than other inmates, and they tend to stay in prison longer.

Mental health courts represent an innovative attempt to tackle this problem, and in recent years these courts have become increasingly popular. There are now 97 across the country, in places like Anchorage, Seattle, Akron, and St. Louis. The Mental Health Court in Brooklyn, which opened in 2002, was the first of its kind in New York State. Unlike many other mental health courts, the one in Brooklyn focuses primarily on people charged with felonies—drug sales, assault, robbery, arson, kidnapping, grand larceny. For these defendants, who are facing state prison time, the offer to plead guilty and receive treatment can be a lifesaver.

The Brooklyn court is in session on Tuesday mornings in room 774, on the seventh floor of the State Supreme Courthouse, at the end of a long scuffed corridor. There is no sign outside indicating this is Mental Health Court, nothing that would suggest anything out of the ordinary occurs here. Inside, men and women fill the rows of wooden benches in the back, waiting to check in with the judge. Most of these defendants have already pleaded guilty and been assigned to a treatment program. A psychiatrist working for the court has diagnosed them with a serious mental illness—most likely, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this criminal court and most others is the tone set by Judge D'Emic, 51, a Bay Ridge native who was appointed to the bench by Governor George Pataki in 1996. Two years later, he was picked to preside over domestic violence court, and after receiving a year of weekly tutorials from a psychiatrist, he began overseeing Mental Health Court.

On a recent Tuesday morning, he peered down from his perch at Thomas, 39, who was dressed in a denim jacket, a pack of Pall Malls jammed in the front pocket.

"Everything all right?" the judge asked.

"Yeah, I'm all right," Thomas said.


Thomas has been coming to this court for a year, ever since he got arrested for third-degree assault.

"Do you have any cards with you today?" the judge asked.

"No," Thomas said. Instead, he pulled out a dollar bill, which he gave to his Legal Aid attorney to inspect. "This is pretty cool," he told the judge. "I'm going to turn this bill inside out."

He folded the bill several times, then unfolded it so it appeared as if it had been cut in four pieces and reconfigured with the corners in the middle. He held it up for everyone to see. Then he folded it once again. This time when he unfolded the bill, it was back to normal. A ripple of laughter spread through the room. "That's good," said the judge, grinning.

Few judges encourage defendants to show off their skills or to talk about their achievements, but D'Emic always does. Thomas usually performs a magic trick or two. Two young men regularly belt out songs; one prefers r&b, the other gospel. Some defendants show the judge artwork, poetry, or pictures of their kids. He invites most up to his bench, so he can talk to them one-on-one about their lives. This practice is unheard of in other parts of the building, where, if a defendant strode up to the judge's bench, the court officers would tackle him.

Room 774 at the Brooklyn State Supreme Courthouse: New York’s first mental health court
photo: Cary Conover
There are now 82 participants in Mental Health Court, and Judge D'Emic tries to show interest in each one's life. Not just in the diagnosis or the alleged crime, but in the day-to-day triumphs and troubles too. "How's the baby?" Judge D'Emic asked Jose, who stood before him on a recent Tuesday.
Next Page »