New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce plans on Tuesday for an overhaul in the way jails across the city handle inmates with mental illness and substance abuse problems, The Associated Press (AP) reported. The plans are reportedly based on the recommendations of a mayoral task force appointed in the wake of incidents involving mentally ill prisoners at Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex.
City officials have reportedly planned to allocate nearly $130 million over a period of four years on a project aimed at providing treatment for mentally ill suspects instead of accommodating them on the Rikers Island complex, which has faced criticism and scrutiny over lapses in the treatment and supervision of inmates. The changes, which do not require a city council approval, would lay stress on treatment, instead of punishment, for those suspected of minor crimes. The plans would also include providing special training to police for handling such suspects, and allowing judges more liberty to order a supervised release.
"The jails hold up a mirror to the rest of the criminal-justice system," a report from the mayor's task force stated, according to AP, adding that, "at every point, the criminal-justice system has become the default for addressing the problems presented by people with behavioral health issues, whether at arrest, arraignment, confinement or in the neighborhood."
The task force reportedly recommended that police encounters with people with behavioral disorders should be tracked, and therapeutic services in prison be expanded. The latest move follows the deaths of two mentally ill prison inmates this year, one of whom died from excessive heat in a cell, while another died after sexually mutilating himself after being confined for seven days.
The deaths “illustrated the need for examination and reform at really every point in the intertwined criminal justice and behavioral health systems,” Elizabeth Glazer, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator, reportedly said.
"What became apparent was that the issues that end up at Rikers start well before they get there," Glazer said according to AP. "In order to address the array of problems here, we really had to look at the system as a whole."
The task force report discovered more than 400 people who had been in jail nearly 18 times for minor reasons in the last five years, adding up to about 10,000 jail admissions, The New York Times reported. The task force report also claimed that nearly 67 percent of inmates had mental health problems while 27 percent suffered from severe mental issues like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Seymour James, the chief attorney for the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force, reportedly called the plan “an important step to limit the overuse of incarceration of the mentally ill," and one that should ensure that there are adequate treatment facilities for those with mental health issues.