An inside look at the mental health court
Eric Tavera went to the Metropolitan Hospital for psychiatric care in June 2021.
instead of it, Surveillance video obtained by NY1 He is shown to have been unseen and arrested after a fight with a security officer there in what his family’s lawyer said was part of a psychotic episode.
Another arrest a week later for assault and strangulation sent him to Rikers Island.
His family said these incidents happened because he did not get the care he needed.
“If he asks to see him and they don’t see him, it’s a crime,” Eric Tavera’s mother, Hedith Tavera, said through an interpreter. “Seeking help, asking for medicines, treatment is not a crime. What they have done to him is not fair.”
In his last court appearance before his death, it was clear that Tavera’s attorney was looking for a replacement.
What you need to know
- A month before his death, Eric Tavera’s public defender had been trying to get him transferred to the Manhattan Mental Health Court
- The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office did not want to accept him into the program
- Defense attorneys and advocates say that these courts are very selective and impossible to enter
According to a court transcript dated Sept. 29, 2022 in New York Supreme Court, Tavera’s attorney said his client “suffers from mental health and substance abuse, a very serious mental health condition, Judge. ADA appointed” — the assistant district attorney — “We agree that the cause of these two incidents It was because of his mental health and lack of medication that he didn’t have access to medication, Judge.”
The lawyer continues:
“Unfortunately, at this time, I was recently told that the ADA will not agree to a mental health court or to send the case to ATI,” an alternative to prison program.
At the time, the Manhattan district attorney’s office wasn’t open for Tavera, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, as he was sent to mental health court—an alternative to prison intended to keep people with severe mental illness away from Rickers.
Tavera will return to prison, where he will die less than a month after committing suicide.
“It is very tragic that we have so many deaths at Rikers Island,” said Alvin Bragg, in an exclusive interview with NY1.
The Manhattan district attorney did not want to discuss the details of the Tavera case.
“We’re doing a comprehensive review that certainly looks at the nature of the crime, the medical history, the history of mental health treatment, and a whole host of factors,” Bragg said. “For privacy reasons, I cannot go into any individual case and in any detail.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the attorney general went further:
“Because of the disturbing nature of the alleged behavior in these cases — the assault on a peace officer, and the subsequent attack on a 14-year-old boy and a Good Samaritan less than a week later — people were not comfortable releasing Mr. Tavira to an unsafe facility, which he would have been part of. from any mental health court or alternatives to confinement. DA Bragg supports the creation of safe facilities for the treatment of individuals accused of violent crimes.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of detainees on Rikers Island suffer from serious mental illnesses. Defense lawyers, families and advocates say the alternative to keeping them behind bars – potentially taking cases to mental health court – is selective and almost impossible to get into.
An investigation in New York 1 found that these courts, spread across the five boroughs, had different standards for admitting people. In 2022, many of them have only taken on a few dozen new felony cases.
NY1 found that all local district attorneys have different requirements for referring defendants to these courts.
Judges also have different approaches.
Brooklyn, for example, accepts most cases. That court had 98 new courts in 2022.
Participants meet with Judge Matthew Dimmick regularly. They review their progress in treatment programs, which they must attend as part of their guilty plea to receive treatment.
When they do a good job, they are greeted with applause.
“We look at these cases very carefully and determine if the risks can be managed,” Demic said. “And look a little further, deeper than the charges, to see what’s really going on. There are very few cases that can be ruled out.”
Al-Qadi says that the majority of its participants graduate from the programme.
Of course, not all of them go as planned.
One of the participants was shot dead last year during a scuffle with police.
“It had a very tragic ending,” Demic said.
However, these cases are rare, he says.
In the end, he says, they get people out of jail and into treatment.
“A lot of this is what society is willing to accept politically,” said the judge. “We’ve been lucky in Brooklyn because from Joe Haynes to Ken Thompson to Eric Gonzalez, we’ve had district attorneys who are not only willing but actively seeking to convert people in these courts and not every county has that.”
The numbers in other neighborhoods are lower.
The Manhattan district attorney says he is limited in the number of cases the mental health court can hear.
That court heard 38 new cases in 2022.
“We’re in favor of expanding the mental health court,” Bragg said. “I’m in favor of expanding the mental health court. An advantage in Manhattan contractually is that we can only have 50 matters at a time. When you compare that to the size of our agenda and the mental health needs the crisis is in Manhattan and in the city, it’s just not enough.”
He says he wants to quadruple that number.
In Queens, the Mental Health Court there has accepted 23 new cases in 2022.
“It’s a small number, but what doesn’t take effect is the people who petitioned last year or the year before that I’m still monitoring now,” said Judge Marcia Hirsch, who oversees the Mental Health Court in Queens. “I also have people with serious mental illness in my Veterans Treatment Court, in my drug treatment court in my DWI treatment court and in my drug diversion court, Section 216 cases.”
Hirsch also said they need more resources.
“I think I have 80 cases in the pipeline, which means the DA’s office is willing to take it. We’ve already talked to lawyers,” Hirsch said. “What’s holding those back is the psychosocial assessments and risk assessments that need to be done so we can put together a treatment plan that really gets stuck in the system.”
Advocates and public defenders are pushing legislation called “Treatment No Jail” in Albany to try to consolidate and expand these courts. But her fate is, for now, uncertain.
For the time being, those who fail may be forced into Rikers.
“They also have dreams of getting out and doing something new with their lives, a new opportunity,” Eric Tavera’s mother told NY1. “This is what my son wanted. He said when he got out, he would behave better.”