Our traditional carceral responses are not working, especially when mental health and substance use issues are at play. As the former chief of the Albany Police Department and current director of Policing Strategies at the LEAD National Support Bureau, I know what works and it is not mass incarceration. Jail and prison do nothing to resolve the underlying sources of dysfunction that drive criminal behavior, and in fact, worsen these issues and lead to higher rates of rearrest. New Yorkers must work together to develop evidence-based and person-centered solutions to increase public safety and repair harm.
Fentanyl has taken over our drug supply, with New York seeing a 68% surge in overdose deaths from 2019 to 2021, including over 5,800 people dying in 2021 alone. This trend has gripped the nation, as more than 107,000 people died of accidental overdose in 2022.
At the same time, we face a mental health crisis like never before. Nearly 20% of adults in the United States are experiencing mental illness, with a quarter of those experiencing serious mental illness. In New York 2.8 million adults have a mental health condition, 591,000 of them suffer from serious mental illness.
When accompanied by poverty and a vanishing affordable housing supply, our mental health and substance use crises become both exacerbated and highly visible.
The collision of these issues also renders those struggling more exposed to confrontations with law enforcement. This I know all too well. I served 23 years with the Albany police. With limited tools to deal with individuals facing mental health and substance use emergencies, law enforcement often are left to resort to arrest.
Thus, even though individuals with mental health diagnoses are no more likely than the general population to engage in acts of violence, one in four New Yorkers with a serious mental illness has been arrested, accounting for 2 million jail bookings a year.
Mental health issues, substance use disorders, and homelessness should never be treated as crimes, and we should not delude ourselves into thinking that jail and prison alleviate these root causes in any way.
Rather, New York should seek to resolve these complex issues through an array of community-based diversion programs, which offer off-ramps from the criminal legal system at every opportunity.
First and foremost, people need someone to call in a crisis who can connect them to community-based services. We need to invest in and strengthen alternative emergency response systems, like the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline or the statewide non-police responder model proposed in Daniel’s Law.
In situations where police are called, we need alternative, non-punitive options for law enforcement to employ so that those with clear mental health and substance use issues avoid the system and instead go into services, including treatment, stable housing, and access to basic human needs. Initiatives like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion/Let Everyone Advance with Dignity, provide this. LEAD allows for police officers to divert people with underlying substance use and mental health challenges, and instead of arresting them, place them into a long-term system of care based on a person-centered, harm reduction philosophy. Participants in LEAD get a case manager who builds a relationship with them and breaks down barriers to services. LEAD has recently expanded to include a community referral pathway making an all-important connection to public involvement in community safety. LEAD decreases rearrest rates by 58%, while increasing engagement with services and housing.
We also must increase access to treatment courts, specialized courtrooms that allow participants to resolve their cases through treatment and connection to services. The Treatment Not Jail legislation proposes to dramatically expand access to treatment courts for individuals with mental health and substance use issues. Under the Treatment Not Jail model, people in need of treatment will be able to seek it in the community, rather than cycling through the revolving door of incarceration, criminalization, poverty and homelessness. Like, LEAD, treatment courts also show a reduction in rearrests by roughly 50%.
New York cannot punish our way out of our mental health and substance use crises. The only way to achieve true public safety is through proven-effective solutions like Daniel’s Law and 988 systems, the LEAD initiative, and Treatment Not Jail. Rather than punishing and further traumatizing individuals for their mental health and substance use challenges, these diversion opportunities steer individuals into the help they need, making all of us safer and healthier in the process.
Brendan Cox is the director of Policing Strategies at the LEAD National Support Bureau and was chief of the Albany Police Department.
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: NY crime must be fought with community-based treatment