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    Ithaca’s New Mental Health Court Provides Alternative to Incarceration

    Central New York’s Regional Coordinator for the Alliance of Families for Justice, Phoebe Brown (far right), spoke at the Oct. 7 panel. (Photo/Hannah Breisinger)

    The room was quiet as Phoebe Brown told her story.


”I lost a sister who committed suicide. I lost a brother who was in and out of prisons and jails, who wound up being shot in the shooting gallery. And I know they both suffered from mental illness — however they didn’t have this arena, or this kind of place who understood it,” said Brown, Central New York’s Regional Coordinator for the Alliance of Families for Justice.

    The “arena” that she refers to was a panel held Oct. 7 in Ithaca to discuss the city’s new mental health court. The court, which will be the first one in the ten surrounding counties of the state’s 6th Judicial District, is scheduled to open by spring 2019.

The event, located at The Space @ GreenStar, was hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It featured a variety of panelists, who answered questions and provided more information about the upcoming court.

    A Safer Community for All

    Advocates of mental health courts aim to provide an alternative, voluntary approach to the incarceration of the mentally ill. They argue that treatment — rather than jail time — improves mental health in individuals, and therefore improves public safety in communities.

    “The people who are charged with crimes, they’re human beings. They have things that have happened in their lives, or are happening in their lives, that are contributing to their behavior,” said Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten. 

    “If we can help someone address their issues — whether it’s substance abuse or mental health — and we can provide resources to them that they’re not connecting with that might help them slow down or stop their criminal behavior, that to me is what public safety is about.” 

    According to the Center for Court Innovation, about 400 of these courts exist nationwide. New York State is currently home to 28, which are located in various jurisdictions. Treatment is court supervised, community based and features a team approach. Treatment plans are also individualized, and require regular judicial monitoring appearances. 

    A Community Decision
    Associate Director of Research for the Center for Court Innovation, Amanda Cissner, shares research conducted on other mental health courts. (Photo/Hannah Breisinger)

    Ithaca City Court Judge Scott Miller, who will preside over the new court, said that the process has been a community effort. Developments first started after determined members of the Ithaca community spent several years pushing for one. 

    “[The question hasn’t been] ‘why don’t we have one,’ but ‘where is our mental health court?'” said Miller. “So I started to get the message: maybe we need a mental health court.”

    Many panelists said that the biggest questions so far in this process have been regarding the success rates of other courts.

    Amanda Cissner, Associate Director of Research for the Center for Court Innovation, said that research on the rates of re-arrest following the completion of these programs is still early and inconclusive.

    But Miller said that this doesn’t matter to him.

    “If the recidivism rate doesn’t go down, that is not that big of a concern to me,” said Miller. “My focus on the mental health court is the fact that these clients are us. And it’s the humane, and the right thing to do.”

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