On March 28th, as part of an ongoing webinar series speaking with justice involved organizations, The Greenburger Center & John Jay College presented New York City’s Defenders in Conversation about the Criminalization of Mental Illness. This panel of esteemed public defenders included Joyce Kendrick, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services; Stan German, Executive Director of New York County Defender Services; Justine Olderman, Executive Director of The Bronx Defenders; and Lori Zeno Executive Director of Queens Defenders. The event was hosted by Karol Mason, the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and moderated by Cheryl Roberts Executive Director of the Greenburger Center.  

Following introductions and an overview of how New York City Public Defender Organizations are different from their compatriots upstate, these experts took an overarching look at the status of how mentally impaired individuals are often under-treated and over-incarcerated. The conversation began with an explanation of how each of the different boroughs examine and handle mental health assessments.

Stan German of Manhattan-based New York County Defender Services, and Joyce Kendrick of Brooklyn Defenders explained the diametrically different approaches Manhattan and Brooklyn take during mental health assessments. Ms. Kendrick noted that Brooklyn Defenders has an arrangement with the DA to move mental health assessments along quickly to get their clients into treatment court with little re-traumatization. On the other side of the spectrum, Mr. German explained that Manhattan clients need to continuously explain their story to all parties involved, and potentially admit to their charge, before even entering treatment court.  

Queens Defenders Executive Director, Lori Zeno added that, while Queens County is somewhere in between the process of Manhattan and Brooklyn, there need to be more structured assessment procedures added to the treatment court system that aren’t dependent on what borough the client lives in. She also spoke about how the system is broken from beginning to end, with the community around individuals with mental illness failing them by actively trying to ignore those people instead of putting money into helping our community.   

When speaking about the failings of mental health court itself, each Executive Director spoke on the urgent need for investment into infrastructure around mental health, particularly in residential services. Each Executive Director spoke about how the process of getting through mental health court is held up when there is a lack of a residential home to return to — a matter of weeks when individuals have a family member or someone to live with but over six months when that living situation is not present. When individuals cannot get into treatments, they end up in jails, essentially trying to incarcerate our way out of a problem that requires treatment. Stan German then spoke about the Treatments Not Jails legislation, which tries to alleviate this issue by applying the standards given to substance abuse cases to all mental health cases. 

The webinar ended with a discussion of bail reform, which will be decided on April 1st with the Governor’s budget, and the dangerousness in giving more discretion to judges when deciding bail. Justine Olderman gave a passionate testimony about how liberally applying discriminatory risk assessment procedures when deciding bail will only lead to an exacerbation of the dire crisis in Riker’s Island; also adding that historically “dangerousness” has been equated with blackness, and the same happens with how we view individuals with mental illness.  

Watch the full panel on The Greenburger Center YouTube page, here