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Mayor: $130M to revamp NYC jails for mentally ill

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POSTED December 2, 2014 11:52 p.m.

NEW YORK (AP) — The New York City mayor wants to spend $130 million over four years to overhaul how the nation’s most populous city deals with mentally ill and drug-addicted suspects, diverting many to treatment instead of the city’s troubled Rikers Island jail complex.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans, announced Tuesday, are based on the recommendations of a task force he appointed following a series of reports by The Associated Press detailing problems at Rikers, including the deaths of two inmates suffering from serious mental illness.

The reforms are aimed largely at inmates with mental health or substance abuse problems who repeatedly end up in jail on minor offenses because there is nowhere else for them to go.

The changes, which do not require city council approval, include offering stepped-up training for police to identify such suspects, using drop-off treatment centers for low-level offenders and allowing more leeway for judges to order supervised release and treatment instead of jail. They draw on reforms already tried in Seattle, Washington D.C., and Louisville, Kentucky.

While the overall jail population has dropped in recent years, the ratio of those with a mental health diagnosis has soared to 40 percent of the roughly 11,000 daily inmates, up from 24 percent in 2007.

A third of them suffer from serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and officials say the mentally ill are both more likely to be victims and perpetrators of jail violence. That’s compounded by the fact that 85 percent of all inmates have a substance abuse disorder.

The deaths of the two inmates reported by AP this year — one who was said to have “baked to death” in a cell that was heated to 101 degrees and another who sexually mutilated himself after being locked up alone for seven straight days — “threw a spotlight” on the jails, where mentally ill inmates also stay longer, said Elizabeth Glazer, the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator.

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