Where Justice and Mercy Meet

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

Eight months later, he ended up back on Rikers Island, arrested for carrying a substantial amount of marijuana. Today the judge was planning to sentence him to prison. Not surprisingly, the young man was hoping for one last chance. "He really does want to pursue treatment," Schreibersdorf, his lawyer, said. "I was hoping that you might consider the possibility of one more try."

"I didn't run on my own," the defendant said. "I was tricked. I was scared I was going to get sent back to jail. . . . I've got an illness. I just can't sit up north in jail with a mental illness. It's not right. . . . If anything, it's going to make me worse." Between his pleadings and those of his lawyer, they managed to persuade the judge to push back his sentencing to another day. A court officer whisked him from the room.

"Sometimes it's the mental illness that makes it impossible to succeed," Schreibersdorf said later. About her client, she added, "He doesn't really belong in prison because what he says is the truth. . . . When he gets out, he'll have learned nothing. He'll be institutionalized. And he'll have gotten no insight into how to control his own behavior. He's right about that, and we all know he's right, but there's no in-between."

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."

For defendants who require a secure facility, who will run away if they are not in a locked building, the judge has no place to send them except to prison, which, of course, is the outcome the court was set up to avoid. Prison may be the single worst place to send mentally ill people. They are victimized by other inmates, have trouble obeying the prison's rules, and often end up in solitary confinement, where the isolation and lack of human contact can make them even sicker. Self-mutilation and suicide attempts are common.


Sitting in this court, listening to defendants tell their stories, it is easy to see that mental illness is only one of a long list of obstacles they must overcome. A young man whispered to the judge that he is very depressed because he wears the same clothes every day; he only owns one outfit. Another man, a longtime cocaine addict, not yet middle-aged, has suffered 13 heart attacks. An older woman was so sick from a recent stroke that she could barely walk into the courtroom.

Even for defendants who "succeed"—who finish treatment and receive a graduation certificate—there is no certainty that they will remain free. Living with a serious mental illness is a lifelong struggle. Two of the court's 19 graduates have already returned, arrested on new charges.

So far, 108 people have participated in the court; the judge has sent seven of them to prison. That leaves 101 people who got a second chance, who received treatment instead of punishment. "If no innocent people are getting hurt and the defendant is going to treatment—or if he's not and I can cajole him into doing the right thing and staying engaged in treatment—then I think I'm doing my job," Judge D'Emic says. "You can't base public policy on anecdotes. On the other hand, success can only be measured one case at a time."

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

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