Topics: Substance Use and Mental Health
The Substance Use and Mental Health Program (SUMH) studied the impact of 2009 reforms to New York State's Rockefeller Drug Laws that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of a range of felony drug charges and expanded eligibility for diversion to treatment. Researchers compared cases pre and post reform to assess changes in the use of jail and prison, rates of diversion to treatment, racial disparities in sentencing, recidivism, and cost.
Preventing suicide and other forms of serious self-harm is a major challenge facing correctional systems across the country. Suicides account for about one-third of all deaths occurring in U.S. jails each year—more than any other cause. Correctional systems often respond to suicidal behaviors with reactive measures that may address individual behavior but fail to consider the full range of systemic factors at play. However, instances of suicide and self-harm in jails are “sentinel events”, indicating a breakdown in the systems responsible for ensuring inmates’ safety.
Bridging the Justice-Health Divide, an expansion of the DC Forensic Health Project, uses data from several Washington, DC agencies to provide government and community-based organizations with the information they need to gauge rates of mental health problems among the people arrested and improve the effectiveness and reach of mental health services.
In 2012, the City of New York launched the nation’s first social impact bond—an innovative form of pay-for-success contracting that leverages private funding to finance public services—to fund the Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience (ABLE) program, a large-scale initiative serving 16- to 18- year old youth detained in New York City’s Rikers Island jail.
For people with complex health conditions in need of timely access to medical services, the time between arrest, arraignment, and admission to jail is particularly dangerous and represents a missed opportunity to connect this population with much needed services and support. The Vera Institute of Justice is working with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) to ensure that people who are arrested in the city have timely access to the health care that they need.
Local jails exist in nearly every town and city in America. While rarely on the radar of most Americans, they are the front door to the formal criminal justice system in a country that holds more people in custody than any other on the planet. Their impact is both far-reaching and profound: in the course of a typical year, there are nearly 12 million jail admissions—almost 20 times the number of annual admissions to state and federal prisons—at great cost to the people involved, their families and communities, and society at large. Through research, publications, and technical assistance to local jurisdictions, Vera aims to foster public debate and policy reform to reduce jail incarceration, repair the damage it causes, and promote safe, healthy communities.
Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program launched the Justice and Health Connect (JH Connect) initiative in 2011 with support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. JH Connect aims to increase agencies’ capacities to share data across behavioral health and justice systems in confidential, legal, and ethical ways to better serve people with behavioral health needs who come into contact with justice systems.
The National Qualified Representative Program (NQRP) provides legal representation for unrepresented immigrants who are detained in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and have been found by an Immigration Judge or the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to be incompetent to represent themselves because of a serious mental disorder.
Our work in New York City spans across Vera’s centers and programs. What these projects have in common is close collaboration with our partners, data and evidence-driven approaches, and recommendations that seek to improve the systems that New Yorkers rely on for public safety, justice, and human services. Although these projects take place in the unique context of New York City, they all bear important implications and lessons for jurisdictions across the country.
Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program uses applied research to help government and community-based organizations create services and policies designed to help people who use substances or have psychiatric disorders avoid criminal justice involvement and receive the services they need to achieve stable community living. Program staff collect quantitative and qualitative data, evaluate existing programs, and review government data to understand the experiences of these populations, the circumstances that lead to their arrest, and the policies that prolong their involvement in the criminal justice system.
Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program launched a project to study the role of indigent defense, commonly known as public defense, for defendants with mental health disorders (MHD) in January 2013. With support from the National Institute of Justice, this work aims to 1) enhance understanding of the challenges faced by indigent defenders and their clients with MHD; 2) improve outcomes for defendants with MHD; and 3) inform the development of guidelines and training materials for defense attorneys that address common challenges to providing indigent defense for people with MHD.