New York, NY – One of the greatest challenges during my 20 years as a public defender in New York City has been recognizing that most of my clients — and I will venture to say about three quarters of them — suffer from mental illness. I will go even further and say the reasons my clients have become involved in the criminal justice system is because their mental illness has either gone undiagnosed, or if diagnosed, untreated.
Without proper support and care, many turn to substances that they eventually become dependent on, which inevitably results in involvement with the criminal justice system: people are often arrested for the petty crimes they commit to support their addictions, like petit (or “petty”) larceny, criminal mischief, possession of controlled substances, domestic violence and other misdemeanors. And, if you’re a person who is already living on the fringe of society – without a home, bank account, job or other stabilizing life circumstances – being convicted for such crimes may not seem like a big deal.
That is why most of my clients who are labeled “life-long criminals” and “incurable recidivists” are brushed aside by the system that incarcerates them. Prosecutors, judges and even sometimes public defenders, look at the rap sheet of this type of person, and instead of seeing them as a human being, they’re categorized based on generalities. Instead of helping the person navigate this life-altering experience, we instead hope for an outcome that usually consists of one more conviction and a few more days in jail, an effort to minimize the length of time incarcerated by pleading guilty as quickly as possible. We usually tell clients, ‘Let’s get you out of here so you can go home.’ The problem with that is many of our clients don’t have a home to go to. And, when you don’t have a home to go to, the likelihood of re-arrest shoots up significantly.
Who are these people that society has forgotten? Is it better for everyone if we just get them off the streets and put them in jail? Sure, they’ll have a place to sleep, food to eat, and even a shower. But if I had a dime for every time a judge said that about one of my clients who appeared before the court obviously homeless, drug addicted, or mentally ill, I’d be able to afford one of those penthouses on Park Avenue.
Take, for example, a client of mine who I’ll call Mr. B. He was 48-years-old when I first met him on a cold, rainy October morning in the arraignment section of criminal court. Mr. B had recently lost his permanent housing after a brief stint in jail for a minor offense – I forget what it even was – and he was back on the street, homeless and spending each night struggling to find a safe space to catch even just a few hours of sleep. He wasn’t alone though. He traveled with a younger couple to ease the stress and loneliness that living on the street brings.
After a decades-long struggle with chronic mental illness, at 48, Mr. B finally found a working cocktail of prescribed medications to treat his schizophrenia. He had been prescribed the meds at the clinic where he’d met that couple a few weeks earlier, and the trio would find places in the subway they thought were safe enough to grab a few hours of sleep before the morning hustle made rest impossible.
One evening, the three of them secured an empty wooden bench against the tiled wall at an uptown subway station, where they hoped they could use their blankets for a modicum of comfort, even if just briefly. The couple, Ms. A and Mr. C, were sleeping together on the bench, with his head in her lap. Mr. B was sprawled on the filthy ground next to them, where he set up his “bed.”
As Mr. B drifted off; then felt a kick to his legs. Looking up, he saw two NYPD officers hovering ominously over him.
“You’ve got to leave. Get on; get out of here,” the cops shouted before continuing down the platform.
The couple was awoken by the exchange then quickly went back to sleep.
Then 45 minutes later, the same officers returned. This time, they grabbed Mr. B’s blanket, along with the bag stuffed with his only remaining worldly possessions: his cane, his psych medications, hearing aid and all of his paperwork. The cops threw his belongings to the side, and then dragged the couple off the bench.
Mr. C ended up on the floor and began to seize. Ms. A became hysterical and told the police that Mr. C was an epileptic. That didn’t dissuade the officers from forcefully putting Mr. C in handcuffs. Ms. A was cuffed next. Mr. B was also immobilized as the police officers restrained him and called for back-up to transport the trio to the precinct for processing and their formal arrest.
That plan changed when the officers realized that, indeed, Mr. C was having a medical emergency. So they radioed for an ambulance on top of their backup.
As Mr. C was rolled away on a gurney, the officers took Mr. B — who was still cuffed — up the stairs to the street. They began placing him in a squad car when Mr. B, who had seen one of the officers throw his belongings in a trashcan, began to scream that everything he owned was in that bag. The police didn’t care, and forced him into the car.
Hours later, Mr. B found himself caged in a cell. He was in a panic; he knew that even one or two days off of his psych meds would destabilize him, which would naturally devolve into a needless mental health emergency.
As his anxiety was spiking he now had to use the bathroom. So he called for the officers to escort him to the nearest urinal. It was then that Mr. B says he yelled out of the cell to get them to listen. The police claim Mr. B spit at them from the cell.
Either way, three officers entered his cell. One officer began beating him in the head with their baton. Mr. B suffered serious head trauma. Eventually, he was transported to a hospital where he received 8 stitches above his right eye.
I met Mr. B a few hours later, when I arraigned him on charges of violent felony assault of a police officer, among other related charges. Bail was set, but he couldn’t afford it. So he remained locked in a cell for a week. Every member of this impromptu trio was eventually charged as co-defendants in the felony assault of one of the officers who stirred them of their slumber on the subway platform. The officer alleged Mr. C had bitten him and that Mr. B punched him in the head from behind in an attempt to help Mr. C resist arrest. Ms. A was charged as well. Over the next two weeks, the policeman’s story changed twice.
The end of Mr. B’s story isn’t complicated: I told the district attorney my client had been beaten bloody at the precinct by the very officers charged with holding him before he was taken to central booking at 100 Centre Street. Once the DA procured the precinct footage, and saw that my client was telling the truth the charges were dropped from felonies to misdemeanors. After a week, the court released him.
Several months later, after a number of trips to court, Mr. A and Ms. C had their cases dismissed entirely.
Mr. B was lucky; there was actually video of the incident at the police precinct that validated his account. That’s rare. Usually, absent proof in the form of cell phone video, or in Mr. B’s case, surveillance video from the police precinct itself, my clients’ stories are not believed by judges, the DAs and sometimes even their own lawyers.
Stories like Mr. B’s aren’t anomalies. This is the norm.
In light of Mental Health Awareness month, it bears mentioning that, despite public awareness to de-stigmatize mental health, we are woefully unable to address mental health illnesses that affect so many in our society. By failing to treat and support those with mental illness, we are hurting those that suffer. And all of society suffers as a result.
In the year 2020, in the greatest city in the country, we still deploy officers to confront the most needy and vulnerable in society; armed not with empathy but with weapons.
Homelessness in the United States increased by 3 percent in the last three years, before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. So it’s obvious that as the pandemic now lingers and will soon extend into a the new year, unemployment is going to keep skyrocketing, because thousands of businesses are closed. That means an already dire situation for all Americans will surely continue trickling down to our most vulnerable.
Given this, it’s essential to those facing homelessness that our elected officials finally address mental health illness. In 2017, Harvard University’s Students in Mental Health Research initiative reported 45 percent of the homeless population had been diagnosed with mental illness in their past. Further, they confirmed that 17.3 percent of inmates with severe mental illness were homeless prior to their incarceration, while a full 40 percent were homeless at one point or another in their lives.
Perhaps these statistics are alarming to some. But, as a veteran public defender in New York City, the numbers actually feel low to me.
When will we learn?