Court program gives mentally ill an alternative to time behind bars
Counseling, support offered to offenders
SCHENECTADY The woman wasn’t sure if she wanted to participate.
The judge explained that the program was completely voluntary, but they would be glad to have her in it.
The program was the Schenectady City Court Alternative Treatment Court, part of the criminal system but focusing on the offender’s mental health. The woman had a diagnosed mental health issue and faced a misdemeanor criminal charge — and a possible jail sentence if convicted.
Her options were to either enter the program and undergo court-supervised mental health treatment and the possibility of probation, or leave her case in the regular court system and face jail time.
“I’ll do the program,” she told the judge at a recent court appearance.
The City Court program, along with its companion in felony-level Schenectady County Court, are among 28 mental health-focused court programs statewide. Seven of those are in New York City.
The goal, officials say, is to take people with mental health issues who have been accused of low-level, non-violent crimes and get them the treatment they need so they don’t offend again.
In that sense, officials said, it’s similar to the more well-known drug courts. Those courts focus on the underlying drug addictions of offenders, addressing them to try to prevent them from committing new crimes. Both the mental health and drug courts are classified by the state among a host of “problem-solving courts.”
City Court Judge Matthew Sypniewski took over the City Court program in 2011.
The misdemeanor-level program typically lasts between six and nine months. Participants go through mental health programs at places like Ellis Hospital. They also are connected with housing and other resources through the Capital District Center for Independence, to give them a foundation for success.
“Sometimes the difference is remarkable,” Sypniewski said. “The before and after — you can really see the difference.”
During a session of the Alternative Treatment Court last week, Sypniewski called up a series of participants, one by one, asking them how they’ve been doing and giving them encouragement.
One participant told of looking forward to starting her garden for the year, saying that she looks to it for stress relief.
Another also had positive news. “You’re doing really well, I’m glad to see that,” Sypniewski said.
But there were setbacks, too. One man who had apparently been on his way to graduating appeared to disclose a drinking-related issue. That man would stay in the court longer as a result.
“I want to see you make this final leg so you’ve got all the tools you need for long-term success,” Sypniewski finally said.
Participants are overseen by the county Probation Department, making regular visits there. Probation officers are also on hand in the courtroom to report on problems, or progress. Sypniewski hears if participants have been going to required support groups or counseling sessions.
Before court, the judge meets with representatives of each of the team members, including probation, defense and service providers, going over the cases.
Locally, only Schenectady and Montgomery counties have official versions of mental health courts. Schenectady County’s began in 2004 under then-County Court Judge Michael Eidens. Eidens left the term “mental health” out of the name to avoid stigma, instead choosing to call the local version the Alternative Treatment Court.
The overall number of participants is relatively low, because the cases and defendants have to fit specific criteria, officials said. The prosecutor, defense attorney, judge and Probation Department have to approve. The person arrested must have a diagnosed mental illness, and no one accused or convicted of violent crimes is allowed into the program.
Schenectady City Court’s program has been running since 2009, started by then-City Court Judge Christine Clark. Since then, 20 people have graduated, while four were dismissed from the program either for a new arrest or refusing to go to treatment, according to public defender Deborah Slack-Bean, who handles many of the cases.
The County Court program has seen 35 graduates since it began in 2004, with six dismissals.
Participants enter the program by pleading guilty to their crime, with sentence deferred until they complete the program. If they successfully finish, their original plea can be reduced and they avoid jail time. If they fail to complete the program, they face a sentence that was agreed upon at the start.
In Montgomery County, the program began in 2008, and has had 10 entrants, with one graduate, according to Montgomery County Court Judge Felix Catena, who presides over the program. The nine others first received mental health court services, but had underlying drug issues and were ultimately moved to the county’s drug court, where they also receive mental health treatment.
Catena said it’s an important option to have, saying it can zero in on a defendant’s particular situation.
“The theory is that they’re a lot less likely to reoffend if they are getting the appropriate attention and treatment,” Catena said.
From the two dozen mental health courts statewide, 2,500 participants have graduated, according to the state Office of Court Administration. There were more than 700 new participants in 2012, with nearly 1,300 cases pending.
Specific numbers on how participants do once they’ve graduated weren’t available. But a report issued in February 2012, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, compared participants in two mental health courts in New York City with those with mental illness who underwent regular court proceedings. The study found that mental health court program participants were less likely to be rearrested, though rearrests were far from eliminated.
As for costs, officials with both the Schenectady and Montgomery county programs said they are overseen with existing staff and resources.
Melanie Trimble, executive director of the local chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, applauded the aims of such programs, saying those with mental illnesses can do better when their needs are addressed, rather than simply going through the regular justice system.
“We appreciate the fact that the courts are looking at the special circumstances of the mentally ill and making sure they’re not wrapped up in the criminal justice system that can’t accommodate their special problems.”
For the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office, prosecutor Laurie Cummings covers the felony-level Alternative Treatment Court cases. The judge presiding over those cases is County Court Judge Karen Drago.
The goal, Cummings said, is to prevent crimes from being committed in the future by addressing the mental health issues that underlie the initial crimes.
“It’s really targeting people who we think that we can keep on the straight and narrow by getting them mental health treatment,” preventing them from being constantly run through the criminal justice system, she said.
As with drug court, Cummings said she does see improvement, when they’ve learned to use their support group structure and how to deal with their underlying issues.
Helping them get connected to community services is the Capital District Center for Independence. The center helps participants solve housing, social security and employment issues, acting as a referral agency.
Representing the Schenectady participants is Slack-Bean. She also represents many drug court participants.
“As long as we’re able to get them stable, out in the community and hooked up with resources, then we know that we’ve done our job, that they’re on the right path,” Slack-Bean said.