The city is making a new effort to channel mentally ill people who get arrested into treatment instead of jail, if they don’t need to be there, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Sunday.
Citing statistics showing that people with mental health problems tend to spend extended time behind bars for lack of bail money, officials said they aimed to do better at assessing defendants’ psychiatric needs and meeting them in the least restrictive setting that’s appropriate.
“If more New Yorkers who need mental health care and community support can be helped to get their lives on track when they’ve run afoul of the law, we will all be better off,” Bloomberg said in a statement after announcing the initiative on his weekly radio show. “No one needs to be reminded anymore of just how important it is to get this group of people the care they need.”
Courts and jails in New York and around the country have grappled for years with how to handle growing numbers of mentally ill defendants. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated in 2006 that more than 1.2 million adults - or more than half of all inmates - were in state and federal prisons and local jails.
In New York City, some 36 percent of jail inmates have some level of mental illness, compared with less than 25 percent in 2005, officials said. And the average mentally ill inmate is behind bars for about twice as long as are other inmates facing comparable charges and bail, as those with psychiatric problems tend to have less ability to post bail, officials said.
Meanwhile, the city spends about three times as much supervising and caring for a seriously mentally ill inmate as it costs to house an inmate without psychiatric problems, officials said.
The new initiative will start next year and set out to work with 3,000 people annually, Bloomberg said.