For over 20 years, the Brooklyn Mental Health Court has been working to keep people with severe mental illnesses out of jail and in treatment. Hear from Judge Matthew J. D'Emic, who has presided over the court since its inception, on the importance of this work.
For over 20 years, the Brooklyn Mental Health Court has been working to keep people with severe mental illnesses out of jail and in treatment. As one of the first of its kind in the country, the program's success has helped the idea of special court programs for people with mental illness gain traction around the United States.
At the front lines of the court program are social workers and case managers. Once the legal partners on a case refer someone to the program, front-line staff work with the participant to come up with a meaningful treatment plan—one that caters to their specific needs. For many, it’s an opportunity to receive help for mental health concerns that have long gone untreated, as well for needs around employment, education, and housing. Successfully graduating from the program can mean avoiding jail, and potentially the long-term harms of a criminal record altogether.
Judge Matthew J. D’Emic has presided over the mental health court since its very beginnings in 2002, when the idea of offering people with mental illnesses the opportunity to avoid jail by committing to treatment was still new. Under his leadership, more than 1,300 people have graduated from the program to date. When we asked Judge D’Emic what the mental health court does differently, he answered with a story —
“One of the first cases referred to the court was of a young college student who was caught robbing two women on the street. After being arrested and sent to Rikers Island, his case was sent to the Brooklyn Mental Health Court and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He pled guilty to robbery and was facing a long prison term if he failed the court mandate. After a year of very successful participation in treatment, he was ready to graduate from the program and face his agreed upon sentence of three years’ probation. His mother wrote to me and the District Attorney and asked for a dismissal. To the District Attorney’s credit, he agreed if the young man stayed with the court another six months and continued to do well. Last I heard, he was completing a master’s degree in graphic design and has remained out of trouble for the past twenty years.”
As remarkable as this story is, there are many others like it. Another client Judge D’Emic told us about was a middle-aged woman also diagnosed with schizophrenia. With a prior charge on her record, she was facing a mandatory sentence of 16 years to life if she couldn’t complete the program. After struggling for some time, she was able to land an internship at a bakery while enrolled in the court, and started work as a baker after graduating.
“There are so many stories, and each of the participants has affected my life.”
What the mental health court offers is a far cry from traditional prosecution, where the same people would have almost certainly found themselves facing time behind bars—doing even more harm to their mental health. Instead, they’re living full lives in their communities, with all the good that brings to them and those around them.
With his over 20 years of experience working at the intersection of the legal system and mental illness, Judge D'Emic shared what he wanted others to know about the issue.
"I've learned that untreated serious mental illness can lead to great suffering in the lives of the ill and their families. The illness contributes to marginalization, isolation, homelessness, poverty, a break from reality, and to crime. Our criminal justice system has to offer people a way back from the margins and accept them as valued members of our society."
That's just what the Brooklyn Mental Health Court and the people who work within it have been doing for more than two decades. In honor of his leadership of the program, Judge D'Emic recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Judges and Psychiatrists Leadership Initiative. “It was a very pleasant surprise,” he told us, “and I’m happy to see that mental illness in criminal justice is in the forefront of this recognition.”