America's jails are filled with the mentally ill, many of whom are repeat offenders, leading critics to say that the United States has created "warehouses" for those with mental health issues.
Can the criminal justice system be transformed to deal more humanely, efficiently, and effectively with the mentally ill?
That's one question a panel of experts addressed today at the Second Annual American Justice Summit at New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The full day event is being streamed live by VICE News — watch the live stream here.
"We are talking about criminalizing mental illness, in a way," said panel moderator Juju Chang, ABC Nightline co-anchor, in response to the description of Rikers Island by John Jay College Professor Stephanie H. Procell, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate.
While working at Rikers as an intern, Procell was assaulted by a mentally ill inmate, whom she said had acted out after having been taken off his medication by Corizon Health, the company that oversees mental health treatment at Rikers.
"He was moved to a new unit without following the basic guidelines of his treatment," she said, adding that she didn't blame him for the attack. She later sued New York City, which runs Rikers, and Corizon Health.
The description of Procell's experience working in the mental health unit at Rikers was a stark example of the types of conditions that prisoners and jail staff must deal with in the US justice system.
Steve Leifman, an associate administrative judge at the Miami-Dade County Court, is trying to change that. He's the champion of Miami-Dade's innovative approach to dealing with the mentally ill.
More than a decade ago, the county instituted a program called the Criminal Mental Health Project, which aimed to "divert nonviolent misdemeanant defendants with serious mental illnesses or co-occurring [mental illness] and substance use disorders, from the criminal justice system into community-based treatment and support services."
Liefman said this was done in response to the overwhelming number of mentally ill people who were being arrested and held at the county jail.
He said one study showed that 97 mentally ill people, mostly schizophrenics, had over a five-year period been arrested 2200 times, spent 27,000 days in the county jail, 13,000 days in emergency rooms or psychiatric facilities, and cost taxpayers almost $13 million.
"And we got absolutely nothing for it," Liefman added.
The Criminal Mental Health Project was in part a response to this dysfunctional system.
"We set up a two-part system — a pre- and post-arrest diversion program," he said. The pre-arrest program provides training to police to identify people with a serious mental illness, and trains law enforcement on how to deescalate situations, and where to take the mentally ill.
Miami-Dade's post-arrest program mandates that anyone jailed on a misdemeanor offense be screened for mental illness 24 to 48 hours after being arrested. If they are deemed to have a mental illness, they are sent to a health facility. Treatment, housing, and transition programs are then available to those with mental illnesses. Liefman said the program has been so successful that the county has arrested far fewer people than before the program existed, allowing the county to close one jail.
"We became intelligent on how to deal with the problem," he remarked.
Liefman said Miami-Dade is working with other counties to try to replicate the model, but there's a long way to go nationwide to deal with the mentally ill in a more humane way.
"Two million people with mental a illness are arrested every year, 360,000 people with serious mental issues are in our jails and prisons," he said. "It's a huge societal problem, and it begins with stigma, with ignorance, it begins with closing all the hospitals and not putting anything in to replace it. So I think we're all to blame."
The rest of Friday's summit will feature panels, conversations, and performances that explore the urgent need for American justice and prison system reform. Gun control and gun culture, juvenile incarceration, immigrant detention, and the state of policing in America are some of the issues to be addressed.
Guests include NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, former US Attorney General Eric Holder, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, Anna Deavere Smith, Rosie Perez, and Usher Raymond IV. See the full agenda of the summit here.
VICE News correspondent Danny Gold will host a discussion this afternoon on deaths in police custody that will include the family of Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas county jail, and the nephew of Bettie Jones, who was killed by Chicago police.
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