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Originally published in City Limits, December 11, 2006.


A Special Place to Plead One's Case: Third Mental Health Court Opens

Some criminal cases meet with 'problem-solving justice.'

Miguel Fernandez stands at the podium, facing a courtroom full to near capacity. He is a small man, with a soft, boyish face framed by sparkling earrings and dark, styled hair. He starts into a speech, hastily prepared just minutes earlier. “I took a lot of things for granted,” he begins. He thanks the court. He compliments the judge. He talks about his girlfriend and his family. “I put them through hell,” he says, his voice choked as he begins to cry. He crumples some tissues and puts them back in his pocket. “I don’t need those,” he says, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Real men cry.”

The courtroom breaks into laughter.

It’s graduation day at Queens Mental Health Court, and Miguel Fernandez is the first “client” – as offenders in the city’s mental health court system are called – to complete the court’s year-long therapeutic program. Located on the third floor of the Queens Supreme Court in Kew Gardens, this specialized part of the criminal court has handled about 20 cases since opening just over a year ago. It officially celebrated its inception last week, however, to coincide with the graduation of the court’s first two clients.

These graduates spent the previous year in a court-mandated treatment program, requiring them to attend therapy sessions, take their medication, and show up for scheduled court appearances – sometimes as often as two or three times a month. In completing the program, they each earn a certificate to acknowledge their success, a round of applause and, from the district attorney’s office, a dismissal of the indictments against them.

The Queens mental health court is part of a growing “problem-solving justice” movement that, since the late 1990s, has been responsible for opening more than 150 mental health courts across the country, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice. Presided over by Judge Marcia Hirsch, it is the third to open in New York City in the last five years, following similar courts in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project, organized in 1999 by the Council of State Governments, describes the courts as having been “developed in response to the overrepresentation of people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system.”

“As far as the kinds of problem-solving courts, probably the mental health court was, in many ways, the most difficult to start up and, for some people, the most controversial,” said Judge Judy Harris Kluger, the deputy chief administrative judge who oversees court reform and specialized court projects for New York state. She spoke at the opening ceremony on Dec. 6. “Because we all know, sometimes in the criminal justice system, as in the world at large, people with mental illness evoke fear in others.”

“The easy thing might be, if someone commits a crime and suffers from mental illness, to say, ‘Well, jail is the appropriate place for them to be,’” said Kluger, “but we came to realize with a lot of good thought and knowledge, that jail was not the place for most people who suffer with mental illness to be.”

Though each mental health court functions somewhat differently, they are all called “jail diversion programs” because they take offenders who would otherwise be incarcerated and divert them to community-based treatment. After clients are referred by the prosecutor’s office, they are evaluated and the court staff designs a treatment program. Some enter a residential treatment program, others live in their own homes. Before being accepted into the court, the victim of the client’s offense has to agree that the offender belongs in mental health court, instead of regular criminal court.

Some courts place limitations on the types of clients they accept. Others, including those in the Bronx and Queens, will consider any “appropriate” case. The Queens court has handled everything from attempted kidnappings to drug cases, trespassing to assaults.

“Mental health courts don’t let really violent people in,” said Carol Fisler, Director of Mental Health Court Programs at the Center for Court Innovation, the research and development arm of the New York state court system. “The DAs and the judges aren’t going to let people out who they think might pose a risk.”

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, there were 200,000 to 300,000 people with serious mental illness in U.S. prisons in 2003. This is about three to four times the total number of people who were treated in mental hospitals that year. Mental health courts are seen by many as an answer to the high incarceration rates among the mentally ill. But they are not unanimously well-received.

“I think it’s a bad day,” said Leah Gitter, of the local mental health activist group Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities, in the courthouse lobby following the graduation and court opening ceremony. “It’s that cliché, something’s better than nothing. But they don’t belong in a courtroom. It’s a health issue, not a criminal issue.”

National Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Thomas N. Faust has criticized such courts for a different reason. “Failure to treat people before they enter the criminal justice system is a major reason for the increase in jail populations,” Faust wrote in a guest editorial in Corrections Today magazine. “Jail diversion programs and mental health courts are positive steps but don’t address the fundamental problem: treating people before problems occur.”

Fernandez, 28, the court’s first graduate, didn’t know that he was bipolar until he was arrested last year. A resident of eastern Queens who works in the financial department of a car dealership, he was arrested last year after he went into a deli, ate a sandwich and left without paying. He was confused, he says, and didn’t realize what he was doing. When the police arrived at his home, Fernandez’s dog bit one of the officers. Fernandez was holding the dog, but did nothing to stop the animal. He was charged with assault, criminal mischief, theft, trespass and resisting arrest.

The mental health court, he said, gave him “a second chance at life.”

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