The Bronx Defenders Responds to Mayor de Blasio’s Initiative to Address Mental Health Crisis in NYC’s Criminal Justice System

The Bronx Defenders commends Mayor de Blasio for taking a major step toward addressing one of New York City’s most troubling criminal justice issues: the criminalization of individuals with mental health issues and substance use disorders. In announcing a $130 million initiative to divert these New Yorkers away from incarceration and into treatment, the City finally acknowledges a crisis that advocates, including The Bronx Defenders, have been decrying for decades. Monday’s announcement signals a fundamental shift in thinking regarding the thousands of New Yorkers with mental health symptoms and serious drug addiction issues who are jailed for low-level offenses related primarily to undiagnosed or untreated illnesses.

“While Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Ponte’s attention to the specific health and treatment needs of our most vulnerable populations in New York City’s jails has been encouraging, the City has moved the conversation upstream to pre-arraignment diversion in an effort to keep those vulnerable groups out of jail altogether,” said Elizabeth Keeney, Managing Director of Social Work at The Bronx Defenders. “Investing in front-end strategies to prevent community members with mental health and substance dependence issues from entering the criminal justice system must be part and parcel of any criminal justice reform platform intended to enhance fairness, public safety and public health.”

The Bronx Defenders is encouraged by the Mayor’s announcement and supportive of the strategies outlined by the administration’s Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice. We are hopeful that the conversation will continue to include the individuals, families, and communities most impacted by these policies, as well as the defense attorneys and social workers who have been on the frontlines advocating for smarter and more just practices. It is critical that the City treat safety concerns related to addiction and mental health first and foremost as public health issues.

Many questions remain, however, especially as the Mayor appears to have doubled-down on his commitment to aggressively police minor offenses. The Bronx Defenders remains concerned about the efficacy and accountability of aggressive “broken windows” policing, which law enforcement officers use to target low-income communities of color. Ultimately, what New York needs in the long term are expanded treatment mechanisms for individuals with mental health diagnoses and substance dependence issues through well funded public health agencies, not policing that endlessly sweeps people into a broken criminal justice system.