Brooklyn Mental Health Court: Linking Offenders to Treatment

Judge Matthew D’Emic and others explain how the Brooklyn Mental Health Court links mentally-ill offenders
to treatment and rigorously monitors compliance.

This is Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Today we’re going to take a
look at the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, the first court of its kind in New York State to link mentally ill offenders
to treatment as an alternative to jail. Judge Matthew D’emic has presided over the Brooklyn Mental Health Court since
it was created in 2002.

MATTHEW D’EMIC: I’ve had defendants
who were accused – one defendant comes to mind– who plead guilty to arson and the D.A. insisted on a mandate of
there years with the court in order to take the case and he graduated last year. No doubt he would have been in jail.

WOLF: To do this work, D’Emic had to learn about more than the law.
He also had to learn a thing or two about psychiatry. He met for an hour each week with the court psychiatrist to
get a feel for medical terms, diagnoses, and medication. But he emphasizes that he still leaves medical decisions
to the experts.

D’EMIC: I know my boundaries. I’m a lawyer.
I’m not a mental health professional. So as much as I would not let the mental health professionals impose any
kind of a legal mandate on me, I rely on their expertise and don’t try to diagnose anybody or act like a mental
health professional in my own work.

WOLF: On Tuesdays, D’Emic spends
his time with clients in the courtroom. Procedures are very different here than in a conventional courtroom.

It’s a very informal atmosphere in the court. I mean my clinical team, which I’m lucky to have, consults
with the lawyers and the defense lawyers, the district attorneys who are also at the proceedings, and, you know,
we get to go through things very efficiently, and yet I think very fairly with justice being done. Every defendant
gets a chance to talk to me. If they want to approach the bench, they are allowed to approach the bench, which you’d
never see in a conventional courtroom.

WOLF: The judge is alternately
stern and welcoming, serious and jovial, depending on each client’s record of compliance with his orders and
their treatment regimes. Those who are doing well receive certificates of achievement when they complete a phase
of their court-ordered treatment.

D’EMIC: How are you? Alright?

WOMAN: I am fine.

Good. So come on up. I have your Phase IV certificate. (APPLAUSE).

Jail sentences are imposed on those who fail.

D’EMIC: Why is she
not on her medication? Why is she not on time for her program?

Sir, um…

D’EMIC: I thought that going to jail might …

No, I don’t want to go to jail tonight.

D’EMIC: I thought that
might wake you up a little but it hasn’t.

WOMAN: No, can you please
understand that I looked at my watch and I there was a misunderstanding with the watch.

No, I don’t understand that.

WOMAN: Okay, it won’t happen

D’EMIC: OK, come back next week then.

I’m sorry sir.

WOLF: Judge D’Emic uses the computer on his
desk and a technology program customized for the Brooklyn Mental Health Court to take copious notes on each client.
When clients appear before him, D’Emic strives to make a personal connection.

: He keeps notes on his cases and when a client comes up, you know, if she had knit a sweater
on the last date, he might have jotted that down. We all kind of do, you know. You wore this sweatshirt or were going
off to this Yankee game: How was that? How was your birthday? And I think that that personalizes that. And you know,
even you know, note-taking, however somebody does it, the fact that they’re acknowledged and that they’re
important to him. And they also know when they disappoint him.

That was defense attorney Colleen Morrissey of the Legal Aid Society, who noted that the entire treatment team plays
a role in her client’s recovery.

MORRISSEY: With the treatment
team and with their knowledge of substance abuse and relapse and mental health and relapse, and to a certain extent,
clients who may not be taking their medication or – those issues, they’re very familiar with that and I think
that they have a way of educating the court as to what these issues are as well. And that’s very helpful.

For clients like Stephanie, the Brooklyn Mental Health Court is a second chance, one that offers her an opportunity
to not only avoid jail but learn how to live with her mental illness.

Originally my case was downstairs in the regular criminal court trial and when I came up here they said, “We’re
gonna give you a chance, we’re gonna work with you.” I was like “God, I am so happy!” You know, someone’s
going to work with me and help me. So I’m very happy with the program.

What kind of treatment did you have?

STEPHANIE: Oh it’s wonderful.
They sent me to a day program. It’s a clubhouse. I will go there, I go there five days a week and they have
cooking, they have computers, they have interfacing with a client and dealing with the staff. But it’s also
a hands-on program because you get to do a lot of things on your own like answer the phones, and they give you a
lot of responsibilities. So it’s great therapeutic work, so I like it.

What have you learned from your experience?

learned that the courts of the United States want to work with people, they want to see us in a satisfying, comfortable
situation, as opposed to sending us to the, you know, the jail system and always looking down on us as though we’re
not able to be productive citizens. They’re giving us a chance to actually turn our situation around and become

WOLF: Lucille Jackson is Director of the Brooklyn Mental
Health Court.

LUCILLE JACKSON: The cases can range from you know,
drug-related offenses to assaults, to, on a case-by-case basis, arson. Also stalking.

Brooklyn District Attorney, Charles Hynes’ Office has been closely involved in the development of the Brooklyn
Mental Health Court. n choosing which cases to bring to the mental health court, Assistant District Attorney David
Kelly says public safety is a top consideration.

worried about, when we talk about public safety in the context of the mental health court is really future dangerousness
or future criminality, and also, you know, recidivism—getting arrested again and coming back through the system again.
The psychiatrists here do a very good job of giving us, you know, a psychiatric risk assessment, the likelihood of
future dangerousness. And down through the years, we’ve rejected a number of defendants because the doctor was
concerned about the defendant’s future behavior.

The other element is once a defendant has
pled out, he usually has a pretty substantial jail alternative hanging over his head and that ought to be a strong
influence for good behavior in the future. And then, in addition, we never really adjourn a case in mental health
court more than one month into the future if you’ve been doing well. And in the beginning, if you’re brand
new to the court, then we’ll see you almost on a weekly basis, which is almost unheard of in most courtrooms.

WOLF: To find out more about the Brooklyn Mental Health court, visit Thanks for listening. This has been Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for
Court Innovation.