BY MICHAEL RICONDA
NEW CITY – In keeping with a growing trend across the country, the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office has begun to consider the needs of suspects and inmates with mental illness. Now, the scope of who they would be able to assist might grow even broader.
Rockland has had a mental health court which served such a purpose since 2013. This year, the current Mental Health Alternatives to Incarceration (MHATI) Program might be expanded to include not only those with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders but also intellectual and developmental disabilities (I-DD), including individuals on the autism spectrum.
The DA’s Office is one of the latest nationwide to pursue the new program through Stepping Up, a national initiative to reduce the number of mentally ill persons in prison and cut down recidivism rates.
As it stands now, MHATI is an alternative to incarceration program which focuses on recovery. After a defendant is referred to the program by a family member, healthcare professional, public defender, ADA, law enforcement or another source, their case and history is examined for eligibility.
If the defendant has no violent criminal history and chooses to enter the program, he or she must plead guilty. However, instead of sentencing, the defendant agrees to meet with a case manager who identifies treatment options, provides referrals and regularly reports back to the court for at least a year.
In the case of I-DDs, the nature of the conditions necessitates different options for defendants. According to ADA Judy Rosenthal, who is working on a pilot version of the program, the I-DD initiative seeks to identify and prevent problems with individualized service plans which include behavioral regulation and skill-building strategies rather than reduction of symptoms.
“It’s not about treatment because you’re not treating something that gets better,” Rosenthal said. “What we’re focusing on is identifying needs and means of support.”
Given that the program begins prior to sentencing, the program also differs in a legal sense. Upon successful completion of the program, a defendant might see his or her charges dismissed or reduced.
County Legislator and Camp Venture President John Murphy, who learned of the initiative through the National Association of Counties, helped pass a memorializing resolution supporting the DA’s new program. According to him, the measure is another step forward in finding the most appropriate services available for Rocklanders in need.
“The fact of the matter is that the jails now have more mentally ill people in incarceration than we have in psychiatric hospitals,” Murphy said. “Sixty percent of the people in jails are mentally ill and their condition worsens in jails.”
In Rockland, similar alternative to incarceration programs have seen a degree of success. Since 2013, the MHATI served 38 felony offenders and eight misdemeanor offenders with an 85 percent retention rate and a 28 percent completion rate.
The new I-DD program is still in its infancy and includes only one test case. Meanwhile, Rosenthal has been reaching out to service-providers and mental health professionals such as the Rockland Independent Living Center and the New York Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, building a network for referrals and support.
As always, new data might mean the test program will not be identical to the one put into practice. However, it is a clear starting point for a previously overlooked population in Rockland’s Justice System.
“We never know what we’re going to meet until it happens,” Rosenthal said.