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City Plans To Handle Mentally Ill Defendants With Treatment Instead Of Prison

NEW YORK (AP) _ The city is making a new effort to channel mentally ill people who get arrested into treatment instead of jail, if they don't need to be there, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Sunday.

Citing statistics showing that people with mental health problems tend to spend extended time behind bars for lack of bail money, officials said they aimed to do better at assessing defendants' psychiatric needs and meeting them in the least restrictive setting that's appropriate.

``If more New Yorkers who need mental health care and community support can be helped to get their lives on track when they've run afoul of the law, we will all be better off,'' Bloomberg said in a statement after announcing the initiative on his weekly radio show. ``No one needs to be reminded anymore of just how important it is to get this group of people the care they need.''

Courts and jails in New York and around the country have grappled for years with how to handle growing numbers of mentally ill defendants. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated in 2006 that more than 1.2 million adults _ or more than half of all inmates _ were in state and federal prisons and local jails.

In New York City, some 36 percent of jail inmates have some level of mental illness, compared with less than 25 percent in 2005, officials said. And the average mentally ill inmate is behind bars for about twice as long as are other inmates facing comparable charges and bail, as those with psychiatric problems tend to have less ability to post bail, officials said.

Meanwhile, the city spends about three times as much supervising and caring for a seriously mentally ill inmate as it costs to house an inmate without psychiatric problems, officials said.

The new initiative will start next year and set out to work with 3,000 people annually, Bloomberg said.

Expert teams will assess the defendants' mental health needs, likelihood of showing up in court and potential for reoffending. The teams will make suggestions to judges about what psychological services and supervision are suitable.

Defendants deemed unlikely to skip court or to get rearrested will be recommended for release, with supervision and treatment, while their cases play out. Those who aren't expected to reoffend but are seen as likely to miss court dates could be placed in settings where they would get care.

Those considered likely to be rearrested and to skip court wouldn't be eligible for these alternatives.

The city, like some other jurisdictions around the country, already has what are known as mental health courts, which also focus on trying to get defendants into treatment. The city program would be oriented toward what happens to defendants while their cases are pending, while the mental health courts focus on the ultimate outcome of a case.

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(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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