NYDN Op Ed by Sen. Luis Sepulveda and Cheryl Roberts: A Tale About Mental Health, Not Bail

Staff / Feb 3rd, 2020
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Tiffany Harris, a woman living with what appears to be a serious mental illness, has become a poster child for the push to roll back new bail reform laws in New York. Harris was charged with slapping three Orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn. Rather than ordering mental-health counseling as a condition of release, something provided for in the new bail law, the judge released her. Not surprisingly, Harris was rearrested a day later for hitting someone else who apparently was not Jewish.


Given her untreated mental illness, what happened to Harris and her victims was sadly predictable, as are the lengths some bail reform opponents have gone to sensationalize this and similar cases as a bail reform problem. It's not. Harris' case points out failings of our mental health system, not our criminal justice system. (Notably, one woman who was slapped said she never wanted Harris jailed and submitted a statement read at a rally in support of the bail laws.)

Harris' case perfectly illustrates why the criminal justice system is no place for people with serious mental illness. They belong in the mental health system where they can get treatment, not in jails or prisons where they are likely to suffer and get worse. Yet cycling in and out of jails has become the government's tragic default response to mental health needs, particularly for poorer people who cannot access adequate care.


In this context, it is disappointing to see foes of bail reform use fear and falsehoods for political gain. It is equally concerning to hear others calling for judges to be tasked with predicting a person's future dangerousness at pretrial detention hearings for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. That would only reintroduce the racial and cultural biases bail reform was intended to end and mislead the public into believing that preventative detention is a fair or effective tool for public safety.


Our collective experiences as the current chair of the state Senate committee overseeing prisons and jails and as a criminal justice reform advocate show us that correctional facilities simply cannot provide the kind of treatment needed, and instead temporarily warehouse and release people with mental illness after providing only the most basic care. Moreover, we know the vast majority of people released pre-trial show up to every court date and many charges are significantly reduced or withdrawn by prosecutors during this process.

If lawmakers are afraid of people like Harris and truly care about public safety, then we must make sure she receives adequate mental health treatment in her own community. Studies show that people with serious mental illness are less violent than the general population when treated, but slightly more violent when living with certain kinds of untreated problems.

We should start by ensuring that judges are educated about the bail reform law and the opportunities it provides to divert people like Harris into treatment. We call for the creation of a New York State Judicial Commission on Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders to support the development of mental-health courts and diversion resources in every judicial district.


Additionally, money saved by shrinking the criminal justice infrastructure should be reinvested into the mental-health system to fund treatment, crisis respite centers, supportive housing and some secure housing for people living with the most serious conditions where they can receive uninterrupted treatment in a therapeutic environment.


These improvements can be implemented while giving bail reform a chance to work. The few incidents of people being re-arrested pre-trial in New York so far appear to be mainly the result of courts and law enforcement not yet being prepared for the changes; they aren't evidence that the reforms are failed or ill-conceived.In the interest of true public safety and health, let's be honest and work together to decriminalize mental illness and build a justice system that works for all.


Sepúlveda chairs the state Senate Committee on Crime, Crime Victims and Corrections. Roberts, a former judge, is the executive director of the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice.

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