When prosecutors and judges are turned into vote-seekers, efforts to develop more humane approaches to punishment and law enforcement suffer, the veteran TV journalist said in an interview aired on CUNY’s “Criminal Justice Matters” program Tuesday. He charged that the Trump administration’s “tough on crime” rhetoric has made things worse.
Political “ambition” and rhetoric have subverted efforts to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, says veteran TV journalist Bill Moyers.
“No other nation in the world permits its justice system to be organized around political ambition,” Moyers said in an interview aired Tuesday on CUNY-TV, the public network operated by the City University of New York.
Moyers said the practice in many jurisdictions across the country of electing judges and prosecutors clouds serious debate about challenges like prison reform by appealing to the kind of “tough on crime” rhetoric that appears to win elections—but is often unrelated to fact.
“You get political appeals, not the appeal of data and reason brought to bear,” said Moyers, who was most recently executive producer on “Rikers: An American Jail,” a hard-hitting documentary about New York’s troubled detention facility.
Moyers told Stephen Handelman, host of the monthly “Criminal Justice Matters” program and editor of The Crime Report, he believed there was a rising public awareness of the need for justice reforms in both “red states and blue states.”
But he added there was also a need for more public service journalism that could provide the facts required by the public to weigh the variety of options for change, especially at a moment when President Donald Trump and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions are arguing that the only way to deal with criminals “is to lock’em up and throw away the key.”
Moyers, who served as a special assistant to President Lyndon Baines Johnson when the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice was established in 1965, warned that many of the principles established in the commission’s landmark report were in danger of being reversed by the new administration.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Photo by manhhai via Flickr.
Recalling that LBJ had once told him that “A man’s judgment is no better than his information,” Moyers said the commission’s first challenge was to gather data on operations of the justice system that until then had never been tabulated on a national level.
“Data is the backbone of reform (and) in 1965 we had no national data on crime,” Moyer said. “We did not consider criminal justice as a system. Even LBJ believed that the federal government had nothing to do with local justice.”
After exploring the relationship among police, prosecutors, courts, and corrections, the commission report, released in 1967, developed recommendations aimed at making the prison system “less venal and the justice system more efficient,” said Moyers, whose 40-year career as a public broadcaster earned him 46 Emmys and nine Peabody Awards.
His groundbreaking public affairs series have included NOW with Bill Moyers (2002-05), Bill Moyers Journal (2007-10), and Moyers & Company (2011-15).
Moyers said such an approach was still crucial to helping raise public awareness of the need to develop further solutions to problems such as prison overcrowding or bail reform.
Editor’s Note: In March, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced legislation to create a national justice commission, the first nationwide review of the justice system since the LBJ commission 50 years ago.
Moyers described his Rikers film, released last year, as an effort to bring people face to face with the stories of those suffering from the “culture of brutality” in many jails across the country.
While “brilliant reporting” by journalists has exposed the patterns of violence that have made Rikers a notorious example of that culture, Moyers said he wanted to let former inmates speak directly to the camera, “unfiltered” by journalists, to bring those issues home.
He said that he hoped the film would prod authorities to undertake the reforms suggested by a New York City commission, chaired by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman—including replacing Rikers with smaller facilities situated in the neighborhoods where many of the offenders came from.
“Until you see the person who is suffering (from the system), you can’t understand it on an emotional and conscientious level,” he said.
At the same time, he called journalists to concentrate on policy and data, rather than be deflected by the political rhetoric.
Moyers was named last week by John Jay College and The Crime Report as the 2018 Justice Media Trailblazer, an annual honor recognizing individuals in the media and media-related fields who have made a major impact on the justice debate.
He will receive the award at a dinner at John Jay College in New York on Feb. 15, 2018.
Judge Lippman will introduce him.
The dinner is open to the public, but advance reservations are required. Information about the dinner is available here.
“While ‘Close Rikers’ has become a convenient moniker, it masks the seismic system change that must happen in order to achieve that one goal,” said Elizabeth Glazer of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
Facing pressure from New York City Council members, city officials defended their progress toward closing the Rikers Island jail complex, saying doing so isn’t merely a question of real estate but requires a sea change in how the criminal-justice system functions, the Wall Street Journal reports. “While ‘Close Rikers’ has become a convenient moniker, it masks the seismic system change that must happen in order to achieve that one goal,” said Elizabeth Glazer of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, during a council hearing on Monday on the jail’s closure. To close Rikers Island, the daily population must shrink to 5,000 from about 9,100. Closing the complex would involve building jails in the boroughs, where they could face community opposition.
Council members and others questioned whether sufficient progress had been made toward closing Rikers, which has long been plagued by violence. Administration officials say shuttering the island’s jails would take about a decade. “The time for incremental reforms has come and gone,” said Queens Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the council’s criminal-justice committee. “There has been a lot of talk but little action.” Queens Democrat Donovan Richards Jr. , said the idea that it would take 10 years was “shameful.” Inmates, he said, “come home broken” from Rikers Island. Officials said they had taken steps toward planning for new jails in the boroughs and ultimately shuttering the complex. These have included reducing the number of people incarcerated and creating jail alternatives. The city has formed working groups to address issues involved with closing Rikers, including one that would focus on changing jail culture. As the number of inmates decreases, shrinking the population further becomes tricky. “Who is left at Rikers Island will increasingly be those accused of violent offenses,” Glazer said.
Modern jails should be smaller, smarter, greener, and kinder, says an architect who has designed detention facilities for 40 years. Some municipal authorities agree, but will others follow suit?
We’ve all heard it before. The U.S. incarcerates at the highest rate of any nation on earth. Prisons and jails are full. Mass incarceration is endemic to a rotten system.
There are many programs underway that are rethinking our approach to punishment, in ways that emphasize accountability and pro-social behavior: quit drug habits, learn a skill, get a job, be reliable, be punctual, support your family, and pay your debts to your victims.
But few have given much thought to how our current design of correctional institutions undermines these enlightened approaches.
I have been designing jails (not prisons) for the past 40 years. In that period, the philosophy behind jail design has changed radically—for the better. Today, many are indeed safer and more humane than they used to be.
But too many are not.
The physical plants where individuals are detained only emphasize the fact that modern jails are being asked to do too much. They are being asked to address the failure of the courts, the prosecutors, the mental health regime, the education regime, and civil society as well—all of which creates a stream of young, disturbed, addicted and disabled citizens flowing into jails that fall well short of recognized standards.
And the damage is long-lasting, as I can attest from personal knowledge.
The son of one family friend was recently arrested on felony charges after an episode in which he appeared to have gone off his meds. The young man had a successful career, and was voluntarily admitted to a local mental hospital.
But the District Attorney filed criminal charges against this schizophrenic young man and asked the judge to send him to the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City—a facility built on a landfill in 1935 and which has barely changed its profile since.
It’s not surprising that he is now desperate and suicidal.
The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City . Photo by David Oppenheimer via Flickr
Rikers is just one example of the poor state of jails around the country. Physical plants are often outmoded, and many lack funding even for basic repairs.
Even as admissions to county jails both large and small are showing a downward trend, roughly 40 percent of those admitted are diagnosed as having mental health issues, and these inmates are staying longer and longer in jail—typically for six to nine months.
Jails are most definitely not designed to hold the mentally ill for many months and often years. Just as jail personnel are not trained to take on complex behaviors that often turn violent.
There’s an alternative approach.
Smaller counties around the U.S. are moving toward what has been called a “three-door” jail.
Some examples include jails in Montgomery County MD; Maricopa County, Az; and Duchess County, NY.
Images accompanying this article show photos and architectural renderings of what new and more humane jails can look like.
House of Detention, Orange County, NY. All photos by Mikiko Kikuyama.
Rhode Island Youth Detention Facility
Under this model, an individual apprehended on the street for troubling behavior is processed through one of three approaches or “doors:” Detention, Diversion or Deflection.
Detention is the classic secure jail setting.Diversion allows for release on recognizance or Third Party release, and Deflection would move the individual into a ‘stabilization” center or a “sobering” center.
The Deflection option also allows police to avoid arrest altogether by diverting individuals exhibiting signs of mental distress immediately to a hospital or clinic for treatment.
Brooklyn Detention Center, Brooklyn NY. Digital rendering courtesy Ken Ricci
In the “Three-Door Jail,” detention, magistrate, probation and mental health professionals are under one roof. Detainees arriving are processed and evaluated, then channeled into one of the appropriate “three doors.” Most leave in 24 hours.
The result is a smaller jail, since a good portion of detainees don’t linger waiting for court.
Since most states no longer allow involuntary admission to a mental facility (except in extraordinary circumstances) the stabilization model requires skilled mental health staff to convince the detainee of the benefit of staying overnight on a voluntary basis.
More municipal and county authorities need to think of ways to redesign jails to fit this three-door model.
In New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio has announced his intention to replace the discredited Rikers Island facility over the next ten years with replacement jails in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. But the size of these proposed borough jails threatens to replicate the discredited warehouse model, emphasizing security over deflection and diversion.
Union County (NJ) detention center
Union County (NJ) Detention Center. Photos by Mikiko Kikuyama.
Los Angeles is thinking about building a 20-storey high rise to house mentally ill detainees. That goes against arguments that housing for this population should be on a more humane scale, low rise, and therapeutic.
The prevailing philosophy of jail building design is clearly colliding with enlightened approaches to incarcerating prisoners, such as the “three-door jail.”
Big systems like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, are stuck in a conceptual quagmire. Big bureaucracies only know how to mobilize large-scale solutions. Lacking suitable sites (due to NIMBY, environmental reviews, etc.), they are tempted to resort to high-rise buildings or to sites away from the community.
Either solution is conceptually deficient and operationally obsolete at the outset. Many law-breakers are high or crazy. Sometimes both. While putting them in jail is the only solution right now, defining the “problem” in a new way may lead to a new solution.
Modern jails should be smaller, smarter, greener, and kinder.
Small strategies include providing services under one roof. This speeds up the detention decision process, reduces lengths of stay and gets most arrestees out into the community faster and requires fewer cells.
The new Denver Detention Center, for example, has two pretrial courtrooms on the same floor as the intake housing area. Recent arrivals simply walk across the corridor to visit the courtroom for pretrial hearings. About 40 percent of those admitted are released within four days; most of them never use an elevator to go to court.
Smarter jails look like libraries. Their design allows them to fit in the neighborhood without lowering property values. Modern technology provides distance visitation and distance learning; remote arraignment and bail hearings; air conditioning and noise control.
Green jails require a green justice system that supports and contributes to sustainable communities. Locating the new jail connected to the courthouse eliminates the need for lengthy bus trips to court, reduces air pollution and speeds the adjudication process.
Kinder jails have more sunlight, good sightlines, smaller housing units, direct supervision, and environments with connections to the outdoors.
The moral irony here is that the closure of mental institutions has resulted in the criminalization of many mental health episodes. And obsolete philosophy behind jail design only makes the situation worse.
We can do better.
Ken Ricci graduated from the Pratt Institute School of Architecture and was elevated to the College of Fellows for his career dedicated to improving environments for the incarcerated. His designs have been recognized for their light-filled interiors and for their optimism that belies the building type. Jail administrators and county commissioners in large and small cities are his clients. He welcomes comments from readers.
The number of women in Texas county jails has jumped by 48 percent since 2011, far higher than the male population has risen. Failing to meet probation conditions is a primary reason, the Dallas Morning News finds.
Back when the county jail in Burnet, Texas, housed perhaps three women, jailers didn’t have to worry much about contraband mascara, tampon shortages or raunchy love notes in the intra-inmate mail. Over the past decade, the number of female inmates in this rural jail northwest of Austin has surged. Instead of three women, the jail now houses as many as 140, the Dallas Morning News reports. The situation is an extreme example of a statewide trend. Across Texas, the number of women awaiting trial in county jails has jumped by 48 percent since 2011. At the peak in August, more than 6,300 women were jailed before trial, up from under 4,000 in early 2011.
There have been significant increases in women inmates at many jails, especially in rural counties. During the same time period, men in county jails pretrial increased only 11 percent. The surge doesn’t seem to reflect a crime wave. The number of women arrested has dropped by 20 percent since 2011, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. (Arrest data doesn’t necessarily reflect every time an inmate is jailed.) The number of women in state prison — where they usually serve time after sentencing — has been stable. What’s behind the increase in women in county lockups? Interviews with incarcerated women and examination of other cases shows that most of those jailed were poor and were accused of crimes involving drugs or theft. Most had families to care for; few were flight risks. Some could not afford to post bond and get out on bail. More commonly, they failed probation, which promises them clean records if they stay out of trouble. They couldn’t pay their fees and costs, they failed drug tests, they didn’t turn up for court dates, and they were arrested again.
An independent monitoring group says staff at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex “relish confrontation” with inmates. The head of the corrections officers union disagrees, saying guards should be “getting a medal from the monitor, as opposed to saying there’s excessive use of force.”
New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex maintains a “culture of violence” among both inmates and staff, despite efforts to improve conditions at the storied correctional facility, says a court-mandated study reported by NPR. The report said staff on the island “relish confrontation” with inmates, rather than avoid it. It described incidents such as a senior corrections officer using pepper spray on an inmate who was in restraints, and other incidents of unnecessarily kicking and stomping inmates. Filed by an independent monitoring group, the report fueled new calls to shut down the jail complex because of its level of violence. Rikers, a 400-acre island in the East River, is a warren of 10 facilities managed by the New York City Department of Correction.
The majority of the 9,300 held at Rikers’ jail facilities are awaiting trial; the rest are serving short sentences for low-level offenses. Although overall inmate-on-inmate violence is down, the overall rate of use of force by correction officers has slightly increased. Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Inc. rejects the report, saying the findings don’t reflect the reality of what happens at the facilities. With the high level of violence on Rikers Island and dangerous work conditions for correction officers, Husamudeen says they should be “getting a medal from the monitor, as opposed to saying there’s excessive use of force.”
A warrant over a supposedly overdue $25 payment in a traffic case landed a Chicago man in jail, where he tried to hang himself. His family has sued, alleging wrongful detainment.
Outside a Chicago medical clinic last summer, Tyler Lumar told police he’d had enough. Officers were called after Lumar, a 22-year-old with asthma there for a first visit after his longtime doctor died, yelled and allegedly threatened a physician who refused to refill his cough medicine prescription, then tossed papers on the floor and said he would come back and shoot the place up. “I’m so tired of racism, bro,” Lumar said. The incident began when the doctor accused Lumar, who has no criminal record, of reselling his prescription drugs, the Chicago Tribune reports. “That’s racial profiling. I don’t gangbang…”
Police let Lumar go, but moments later the same officers stopped him because a western Illinois county had issued a warrant over an overdue $25 payment in a traffic case but had failed to remove the warrant when Lumar paid up. Less than 24 hours later, he attempted to hang himself in a police holding cell. As a result, he’s suffered massive brain injuries and can no longer move or speak; he’s spent the past year on life support, racking up medical bills of $2 million. His family has tried to determine why he was kept locked up overnight on a low-level warrant even though he had the cash to bail himself out. They filed a federal lawsuit alleging Lumar was wrongfully detained and that Chicago police failed to check on him every 15 minutes in his cell. The case is not only another example of the city and county’s alleged failure to keep nonviolent offenders from languishing in jails but also highlights the tightrope that defendants walk even in misdemeanor cases, where a slightly late payment can land someone in jail.
Like many other cities, New York wants to reduce its jail population and repeated lock-ups of low-level offenders. The latest attempt to address that goal centers around a bold idea that could be modeled nationwide: Do away with all jail sentences of less than a month.
Like many other cities, New York wants to reduce its jail population and repeated lock-ups of low-level offenders. The city’s latest attempt to address that goal centers around a bold idea that could be modeled nationwide: Do away with all jail sentences of less than a month, reports Governing. That’s the idea behind newSTART, a new jail diversion program. It keeps defendants who have committed low-level misdemeanors — things like petty larceny or possession of small amounts of illegal drugs — from entering jail. It would also apply to people convicted of thefts of service, such as jumping a subway turnstile or exiting a taxi without paying.
In exchange for a guilty plea, misdemeanor defendants can opt for one or more social service programs, including drug treatment, job training and mental health counseling.
“We are hopeful that the program will stop the return to jail and [create] a virtuous circle,” says Elizabeth Glazer of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. Right now, the program is limited to defendants who have been sentenced to up to 10 days in jail. If it’s successful, it will be expanded to those convicted of crimes carrying sentences up to 30 days. Not all defendants who fit that time frame will be eligible. The program specifically targets defendants in need of social services and those who have been repeatedly arrested for similar crimes. Almost three-quarters of those facing short-term sentences are unemployed, and more than 40 percent are homeless.
The standards followed by jailers across Utah and in 18 other states help counties provide a legally sound level of inmate care , says their author, Gary DeLand. Most of the standards must remain secret for what he called “selfish” reasons. “Coca-Cola doesn’t tell Pepsi-Cola what goes in the damn drink,” he said.
The standards followed by jailers across Utah and in 18 other states help counties provide a legally sound level of inmate care , says their author, Gary DeLand. Most of the standards must remain secret for what he called “selfish” reasons, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. DeLand said he’d rather end his arrangement that gives sheriffs and their employees access to his jail-operating guidelines than to let them end up in the hands of inmates’ attorneys who could use them against his clients in court. “Coca-Cola doesn’t tell Pepsi-Cola what goes in the damn drink,” said DeLand, who ran the Utah Department of Corrections from 1985 to 1992. “Giving [the standards] away to my competitors is a very unnatural practice.”
DeLand and partner Tate McCotter train corrections workers at seminars. DeLand sells his standards to other states and counties across the nation, offers to be an expert witness in corrections lawsuits and has appeared in hundreds of cases in his four-decade career. “From a selfish point of view, [publicly releasing the standards] makes them available to my competitors,” he said, “which I don’t want.” Utah has been under scrutiny for having the nation’s highest of jail-inmate deaths, according to the federal agency that tracks that data. A string of inmate deaths has led to calls for more transparency of the guidelines jails follow and results of periodic inspections. “What is the point of having standards if we don’t know if they’re being met?” asked Marina Lowe of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU and others have pushed for independent inspections, public disclosure of results from the current inspections and access to the standards.
More than 500 inmates in jails across Texas wait for mental health treatment at overburdened state hospitals. Some inmates languish behind bars for more than 200 days.
Roderick Marshall of Houston pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in an assault case. He hoped that Instead of serving prison time, he could be shipped off to a state mental hospital for treatment and possible release. Six months later, Marshall, 49, sat in the Harris County Jail, one of more than 500 inmates in jails across Texas waiting for mental health treatment at the overburdened state hospitals, the Houston Chronicle reports. On any given day, between 60 and 80 prisoners in the jail are awaiting transfers, running up bills of about $295 each per day for local taxpayers. “This is a multi-system failure,” said Annalee Gulley of Mental Health America of Greater Houston, a local nonprofit. “We’re so far behind, it’s frightening to think about if it’s possible to catch up.”
The dearth of so-called forensic beds has plagued the Texas criminal justice system for at least two decades, with bed space sinking by nearly 300 since the mid-1990s. In the past two years, the wait list has ballooned dramatically, leading some inmates to languish behind bars for more than 200 days awaiting treatment. Some mental health professionals, jailers and legislators are heartened by $300 million in new funding the legislature approved in its 2017 budget, but it’s still not clear how far that will go toward fixing the problem. “It’s a travesty,” said state Sen. John Whitmire. “It’s a shame when we have $11 billion in the rainy day fund that we’re still operating with a shortage of forensic psychiatric beds.”
Efforts to close facilities like the Rikers Island jail complex in New York won’t work unless authorities find alternative ways to deal with seriously mentally ill individuals who run afoul of the justice system, New York’s former chief judge told conference-goers last week.
Efforts to close down Rikers Island, America’s largest jail complex, need to begin with finding effective alternative treatment for mentally ill individuals who are confined behind bars because there are no other places for them to go, according to New York’s former chief judge.
“These people are not in Rikers because they’re hardened criminals,” said Jonathan Lippman. “They’re there because they have a problem, (and) they don’t need to be brutalized by a penal colony that is a relic of the past.
“Instead of tough or soft on crime, let’s be smart.”
Lippman, who served as Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals between 2009 and 2015, spoke at an October 4 forum on the future of the Rikers Island facility, which authorities have promised to close within 10 years.
He was chair of the Independent Commission that produced the April 2017 report recommending the closure of Rikers.
The Hon. Jonathan F. Lippman. Photo by Models for Change via Flickr
The forum, entitled “Closing in on Closing Rikers,” was held at Baruch College of the City University of New York, and examined viable alternatives to prison for the mentally ill that have enjoyed success in other states.
At Rikers, 19% of the inmates have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.
“We’re not getting at that population yet, but if we’re going to close Rikers we have to do so,” said Cheryl Roberts, Executive Director of The Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit organization advocating for justice reform that co-sponsored this event.
Working with the New York Daily News and the Metro Area Industrial Foundation, The Greenburger Center invited behavioral health care expert Leon Evans, President and CEO of the Center for Health Care Services in San Antonio, Texas; and Miami-Dade County Mental Health Court Judge Steven Leifman—both of whom have pioneered strategies aimed at finding alternatives to incarceration (ATI) for the seriously mentally ill.
Leifman told the group he is still horrified by the memory of his visit years ago to a mental health hospital in Miami-Dade County while he was an intern for a prominent Miami legislator.
“I walked into a hellhole,” he said, recalling the sight of one teenager strapped to a bed and given thorazine which made him overweight. The teenager, it turned out, was not there for psychiatric treatment; he was autistic.
In another part of the hospital, he witnessed six naked men being hosed off by a guard as if they were animals.
But today, he pointed out, the mental health system’s failure to provide adequate care for troubled individuals has only shifted the burden to jails and prisons.
“(Some) 40% of all people with mental illnesses in this country at some point in their life will come into contact with the criminal justice system,” said Leifman, who has been one of the country’s most influential advocates of ATI.
Other participants in the forum included New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, an outspoken advocate for local and national criminal justice reform.
“Looking at the way we look at incarceration, and having the punishment fit the crime, is critically important,” said Speaker Mark-Viverito.
In support of this idea, to date, Speaker Viverito and the New York City Council have contributed over $6 million to ATI initiatives, and recently passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act which decriminalized non-violent, low-level offences and replaced them with a summons.
“When you think about incarcerating someone for public urination, it’s unpleasant, but does that really make sense?” asked Speaker Viverito, who believes that authorities have to re-envision their approach to non-violent offenders who are apprehended for minor crimes—if they are ever to reach their goal of permanently closing Rikers.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than two million people are arrested and booked into jails each year. A 2010 survey by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with mental illness are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized, and 18 times more likely to find a bed in the criminal justice system than at any state and civil hospital.
These statistics are reflected in Rikers where, according to a 2015 New York Times article, a total of 4,000 men and women with diagnosed mental illnesses are incarcerated at any given time.
This number represents more than all the adult patients in New York State psychiatric hospitals combined.
But the problem is nationwide, according to Judge Liefman.
“On any given day, there are approximately 360,000 people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons and another 760,000 under correctional supervision,” he said.
“This is a shameful American tragedy and it must and can be reversed.”
To demonstrate what can be done to achieve this goal, Leifman discussed the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project, which he implemented in Florida in 2000. The project seeks to steer people with mental illness that have committed low-level offences away from incarceration and towards community-based care.
“Anybody that gets arrested on a misdemeanor in dade county, within three days they are evaluated and transferred from jail to one of our public or private crisis stabilization units,” said Leifman.
“Because they are on a criminal hold, we can reset the case to a few weeks, give them an opportunity to stabilize, have a team go see them, and offer them an opportunity to come into the program.”
If the person is accepted into the program, they can be in from three months to a year, depending on their illness and charges. While there, they are helped to find housing, clothes, benefits, and are assigned a peer counselor and case management assistance to lower their chances of reoffending.
Leifman said that, as a result of this program, recidivism rates in arrests of the mentally ill have, to date, fallen from 70% to 20%.
This focus on treatment and diversion over arrest and incarceration is believed by the criminal justice community to be the best option for improving what is considered a broken and costly system.
Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Liefman. Photo by Isidoro Rodriguez
According to a 2014 report from The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, the U.S. spends $80 billion on incarceration costs every year. By relying on the criminal justice system to provide services, taxpayers are losing money by putting away people who come out worse than when they went in, Liefman observed.
“It’s gotten so bad that our communities are now having to choose between building a new jail and a new school or hospital,” he said.
“There’s something wrong with a society that is more willing to incarcerate its (population) than it is to treat it.”
For Judge Lippman, Rikers Island is a symbol of the misguided idea that mass incarceration has any rehabilitative function.
“Whether you’re there for three days, three weeks, or three years, you wind up in a much worse place than when you came in,” said Lippman, who agrees that diversion and treatment are the best course of action.
“It’s not just about punishing people, but it’s what the outcomes are for people coming into the criminal justice system and the impact on society.”
In addition, through research for his report recommending the closure of Rikers, Lippman found that by closing the prison, and focusing on smaller, more up-to-date facilities, New York would save over $1 billion annually.
The first step, in his mind, is lowering the prison population from 10,000 to 5,000, and the mentally ill are a key population.
“We need programs to focus on mental health in particular,” he said. “Programs that identify people with mental health problems before they get into the system.”
He cited programs such as Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), which police departments around the country, including New York, Texas, and Florida, have begun implementing with some success.
Focusing on de escalation, conflict resolution, and training to identify the symptoms of mental illness, CIT enables officers to decide if diversion is a necessary response to any situation.
“From 2008, when we started CIT, we had 117,000 arrests in Dade County,” noted Leifman. “This year , it was 56,000. Our jail audit went in half,”
According to Evans of San Antonio’s Center for Health Care Services, CIT-trained officers working with his program’s “one-stop shop” for treating the mentally ill and others in crisis were able to decrease the county jail population by 22%.
“Treatment does work,” said Evans, whose center offers psychiatric care, substance use services, and general healthcare. However, he stresses that the success of these kinds of programs depends on collaboration.
While first serving as the Director of Community Services for the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, Evans became aware of all the people in the prison system of Texas who shouldn’t be there.
He immediately began working on an idea for a diversion program that would break the pattern of criminalizing the mentally ill in his county. However, in trying to get various departments and elected officials together, Evans experienced a lot of push back.
“Almost everybody said, ‘that’s a great plan, but not with my money,’” said Evans. “So, I went to the county judge.”
Working alongside the then newly appointed County Judge Nelson Wolff, Evans utilized this political muscle to help convene a health summit. Gathering together hospital executives, lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and business representatives, he built support for a more pragmatic and beneficial mental health system; one that meant less money spent on criminal justice, less-crowded hospitals, and homeless-free streets.
As a result, since the program’s implementation in 2002, Evans reported that recidivism rates for the mentally ill in his county currently stand at 6.6%, versus the national average for felons after release of 43% as reported by the Pew Research Center, and that taxpayers in San Antonio and Bexar County have saved more than $50 million over the last five years.
It is an example of cooperation and cohesion that he insists is necessary to emptying out jails and prisons like Rikers around the country.
“Be brave enough to talk about what doesn’t work, collect the data,” said Evans. “It’s not about who’s doing good or who’s doing better, it’s about improvement.”
According to Leifman, thanks to benefits like the passing of Kendra’s Law and access to extended Medicaid, New York is, in some ways, ahead of the game.
“We just got the law changed to be able to expand our AOT, which is an amazing pool for (the mentally ill) population,” said Leifman. “That’s one of the things you already have with Kendra’s Law.”
Effective since November of 1999, Kendra’s law grants judges the authority to issue orders that require people who meet certain criteria to regularly undergo psychiatric treatment. Coupled with mental health courts, which offer early screening in the court system, the law is a powerful tool in identifying and diverting the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system and into developing ATI programs such as the Greenberger Center’s own Hope House.
Scheduled to open in the Bronx in 2018, Hope House will be an assisted outpatient treatment center offering care and services comparable to the programs developed by Leifman and Evans.
The access to extended Medicaid allows prisoners to apply for insurance coverage while incarcerated and access said coverage upon release, the often impoverished mentally ill will have access to the funds needed to maintain medications and care.
Participants in the forum agreed that though many steps have been taken in the right direction, there is no one solution to the problem of Rikers, and no quick fixes in a system that still suffers from a “tough on crime” policy that stubbornly fails to acknowledge the data and science fueling the effort for change.
Joking that his program is an “overnight 17-year success,” Evans pointed out that achieving change and cooperation required the aid of a County Judge willing to bring together the community and make everyone work towards a solution.
He warned that what worked in one county in one state may not succeed elsewhere.
New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
“Change is hard,” said Evans. “There’s so much politics involved, there’s so much money involved, and nobody wants the spotlight on them.”
Speaker Viverito agreed.
“Yes, we’re starting to see some sort of conversation and change of view and perspective on a national level,” she said. “But it’s still very challenging to get people to think that incarceration is not the only solution to the problem.”
Though the Criminal Justice Reform Act passed, and seemed a simple solution to ebbing the tide of New York’s incarcerated, it, nonetheless, met with controversy and resistance.
“People thought that we were having the city run amuck,” said Viverito.
“Bringing the mental health challenges to the forefront and making sure it’s not a conversation that is held behind closed doors will take us a long way to dealing with the issue,” said Viverito.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a New York-based contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.