Exclusive: Brooklyn's mental health court

February 4, 2009 6:13:30 PM PST
An Eyewitness News Investigators exclusive took our Sarah Wallace inside mental health court. An estimated one out of six prison inmates is mentally ill. They receive little or no treatment and often, when released, commit more serious crimes. But a change is taking place in the court system, helping the mentally ill instead of incarcerating them.

The Investigators' Sarah Wallace got rare access inside the court. She has the story.

In every respect, these courts make sense. The idea is to deal with mentally ill offenders early on, before they spiral out of control. But make no mistake, this is not a get-out-of-jail free pass. The rules are strict, the court monitoring is intense and the success is impressive.

It's not often you see criminal defendants approach the bench and casually talk with the judge.

"I have made it through it," one defendant told the judge. "Thank you for everything."

How many courts have graduations? With audience applause? With heartfelt poems of thanks?

Well, Judge Matthew D'Emic's mental health court in Brooklyn has all of them. It's a place where crime and compassion meet, but the judge is no-nonsense.

The court is the model for the rest of the country. The idea is to promote early intervention for mentally ill offenders before they decline more dangerously.

What makes Brooklyn's court unique is that it accepts felony cases, not just misdemeanors. They are usually non-violent, with violent felonies accepted on a case-by-case basis. But all the defendants have to meet the same strict requirement.

"In order to be eligible for the mental health court, a person has to suffer from a serious and persistent mental illness," Judge D'Emic said. "And the criminal behavior has to have some connection to that illness."

In jail, it's not really going to help me," defendant Kalimah Cordero said. "I would just do my time and come out back and it's going to be the same thing all over again. I know I needed help."

Defendants are required to plead guilty up front to the charge. If they agree to go into a treatment program, usually a year, and come to court weekly, their charge will be dismissed or reduced to probation. Otherwise, they do the full prison sentence.

What is extraordinary is the tone of the court, and how Judge D'Emic and the staff treat the defendants.

"I need you to try to control your anger, OK?" he said to a defendant.

Cordero set a fire in a psychiatric hospital. She's been in a lot of them, and her parents are both in prison.

Sarah: "For the first time, someone is taking a real interest in you?"
Cordero: "For the first time, I feel like they are not out to get me...He doesn't really push the issue to lock you up. He wants to make sure that you are alright and take your medication."

Sarah: "One of the defendants said, he really cares about me. You don't often hear that about a judge."
D'Emic: "But doesn't that make all the difference in the world? If you think somebody cares about you?"

But this is not just about humanity, it's also about saving lives in the community, according to the Brooklyn district attorney.

"They get no services in prison, so they are frustrated and they act out their frustration," DA Charles Hynes said. "This is to get to people who will become increasingly more violent."

"The first time I went in, I came out a better criminal," Kenzo Thompson said.

Thompson served time for drugs and got re-arrested, and finally someone referred him to the mental health court. He's just received a certificate for doing well and is heading toward graduation.

"It's meant for me, I get a chance to start over, to start my life over," he said.

Chris Frauenberg did a couple of robberies before he got into the program.

"It took me to rob somebody else for them to understand that I needed help, and now I'm graduating," he said.

Eighty percent of those in the program graduate.

D'Emic: "I have people here that have never been engaged in their entire lives, at least in a meaningful way."
Sarah: "But you feel good when you do this?"
D'Emic: "I do. It's a great assignment. I'm a lucky guy."

District Attorney Hynes predicts the need for mental health courts will skyrocket in the upcoming years with the return of thousands of veterans from Iraq who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

He and other advocates are also trying to set up crisis beds at unused former state hospitals so offenders can get into treatment immediately rather than being kept in jail.