Where Justice and Mercy Meet

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

The question pushed Jose's lips into a smile. "Good," Jose said. "She's getting big."

"How old is she?"

"Three months."

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."

"Good for you."

Jose promised to bring a picture of his baby next time, then turned toward the exit. To remember personal details about each defendant, Judge D'Emic relies on a computer hidden beneath his desk. The computer contains his notes on every defendant's prior visits; to read them, he looks down at the monitor through a small window. In Jose's file, there was a mention of his daughter's birth. As Jose walked out of the courtroom, the judge tapped on the keyboard, adding a few more lines.

These private notes include all sorts of information one would never find in a standard court file. Judge D'Emic knows who just got back from a family reunion in North Carolina, who lost a construction job, whose wife recently died, who got their benefits cut off, who passed their last drug test. On a Tuesday in May, the judge saw Francisco, 51, who has been coming to this court for a year, since his arrest for a drug sale. Now he is in a program and trying to put an end to his addictions.

"D CAUGHT AN 8 PD STRIPED BASS AND CELEBRATED BY HAVING A BEER," the judge typed in his computer. "STEP BACK BUT HE KNOWS IT AND ADMITTED IT. HE WILL BRING IN A PHOTO OF FISH NEXT TIME." Three weeks later, after Francisco's next court appearance, the judge wrote: "D SHOWS ME PICTURE OF 9 LB FISH HE CAUGHT."

The judge always notes when a defendant receives a certificate. There are four "phases" in Mental Health Court, and when defendants stay out of trouble for a certain period of time, they receive a certificate from the judge. After completing a treatment program—which lasts at least a year—a defendant "graduates" from the court, meaning that the felony is dismissed and the person is completely free. So far, the court has 19 graduates. Each received a handshake from the judge, applause from the audience, and a gift from the court's clinical director—usually an appointment book or a disposable camera or a box of chocolates.

This strategy of lavishing attention and giving regular rewards seems to work. "These are people who have been really sick their whole lives," says Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, who is often in the court. "Everyone's telling them how messed up they are, that they're a complete failure. They haven't had much positive response from anybody in authority their whole life, and here's a judge telling them they did a good job. They just brighten up when he pays attention to them."

Many of the defendants have been coming here for so many months that their stories are well-known. There is the pharmacist who became a pill addict and a habitual drunk driver; the woman with the spiky red hair, a former cocaine addict who pulled on a ski mask and stuck up her local bodega; the Brooklyn Law student who broke into his school to retrieve a test because he was afraid he'd failed; and the Pratt Institute student who was beaten up by other inmates after he started twirling around his Rikers jail, bumping into people, and declaring that he was Jesus and Rikers was heaven.

Helping these defendants navigate New York City's mental health system is the job of the court's clinical director, Lucille Jackson, and her staff. For each defendant, they search for the appropriate services—a case manager, a treatment program, and if necessary, a residence too. Finding an empty bed is the hardest part. If a defendant needs a place to live, he or she could end up spending an extra six months or more on Rikers Island.

Even when the court connects a defendant with a case manager, a treatment program, and a residence, there is, of course, no guarantee he will flourish. The tall, slender 25-year-old wearing a Jason Sehorn jersey and a pair of handcuffs, standing before Judge D'Emic on a recent morning, knows this as well as anyone. Diagnosed with a paranoid personality disorder, he was assigned to Mental Health Court in early 2002, after an arrest for grand larceny. Not long before, he had left state prison after spending two years inside on an assault conviction.

Like every other defendant in the court, he pleaded guilty and was assigned to a treatment program. The judge explained that if he stayed in the program, his second felony would be erased; if not, he would receive a prison sentence of two to four years.

It was not long before the young man ran away from his residence. The court found another residential program, and the judge even gave him his cell phone number, so he could call any time he needed help. All of this effort didn't seem to work, however. He did not respond well to his medication; he looked like a zombie when he came to court. He ran away again. Over five months, he ran away at least twice from two residences. Then he disappeared altogether.

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