For the sake of public health and safety, pass the Treatment Not Jail Act

“Treatment Not Jail offers the possibility of mental health treatment courts for all justice-involved New Yorkers and improves on the prevailing model of drug courts.”

William Alatriste/New York City Council Media Unit

Elected officials and activists at a rally on Rikers Island in February 2022.

Imagine being among the 1 in 5 people in New York who have mental health and substance use issues that have rarely been addressed because they were born into a world of systemic injustice, poverty, and lack of access to care.

Now imagine that you are charged with a crime, an unaffordable bond is set, and you are jailed in squalid conditions without meaningful mental health care. Because there is no law creating mental health courts for all New Yorkers, you face months or years in the hell of incarceration and endure subpar treatment in a traumatic environment that exacerbates your vulnerabilities.

Astonishingly, New York currently incarcerates 40,000 people, nearly half of whom are diagnosed with a mental health disorder. New York incarcerates more people with mental illness than it treats in hospitals.

Imagine another scenario where the Treatment Not Jail Act is in effect. This law recognizes that New Yorkers involved in justice have experienced racial and economic injustice, unstable housing, and insufficient health care and education. His humanity is now recognized and he is offered community treatment with the possibility of leaving prison without a criminal conviction. This will allow you to acquire housing, employment and everything necessary to maintain stability. You and society benefit because you received treatment, not jail.

State legislators must make this a reality by enacting the Treatment Not Jail Act this legislative session.

It is encouraging that recent amendments to the State’s bail laws now straight judges to send cases to mental health “treatment courts.” However, this provision is currently unworkable because mental health courts are not yet New York law. Treatment Not Jail enables implementation of this provision by ensuring that mental health courts are accessible to all counties in New York State.

It is a lie that incarceration makes communities safer. Research overwhelmingly shows that jail and prison make people more likely to reoffend. Too often, people languish behind bars without treatment while counterproductively exposed to violence and drugs.

Released into shelters without stable housing, medical and mental health care, they are expected to navigate housing, treatment, employment and benefits despite the adverse collateral consequences of their criminal conviction and a debilitating mental health diagnosis that makes it difficult to its operation. Increased substance use, psychological decompensation, and recidivism continue in a grotesque revolving door that harms not only these individuals, but our communities as well.

It is false that people living with mental illness are a risk to public safety. In fact, they are 10 times more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. It is also wrong that people charged with violence do not have the same success in community-based treatment as people charged with non-violent crimes. In fact, drug court graduates are 50 percent less likely to reoffend. We must follow the facts and not fear propaganda.

Statutory drug courts were created in 2009 for people with substance dependence charged with select offenses. Treatment Not Jail expands this decades-old law to now include people with mental health diagnoses charged with any crime.

It costs $556,000 to incarcerate one person on Rikers Island per year. The diversion promotes reinvestment in affected communities, increases quarterly employment rates by nearly 50 percent over 10 years, and eliminates the high financial costs of incarceration. Treatment Not Jail offers the possibility of mental health treatment courts for all justice-involved New Yorkers and improves upon the prevailing model of drug courts. It empowers judges to order clinical evaluations and then decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether the treatment will benefit both the individual and public safety.

New York’s current system fails us all. We must expand existing law to make our communities safer and healthier. In doing so, it is recognized that safety and equity are not contradictory but interdependent, and that people with substance use problems, mental health problems and other disabilities also have a right to safety and freedom from excessive incarceration, dehumanization and stigmatization.

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