Following Mayor Bill de Blasio’s visit to Rikers Island last week, criminal justice advocates are putting forth their plans to put an end to the crisis happening at the jail complex. 

The Legal Aid Society (LAS) with supporters of survivors of Rikers rallied yesterday, Oct. 4 at Foley Square in Manhattan, to promote the ‘Treatment Not Jail Act,’ which focuses on reforming the mental health services and qualifying process for those held on Rikers.

Advocates at LAS believe that the legislation will ensure that “problem-solving court models” reduce disparities along race, income, gender/gender identity, and ethnic lines in the city’s health and criminal legal systems, which is urgent in a city impacted so severely by COVID-19.

Peggy Herrera has worked for a major city agency that caters to troubled youth for the past six years. Herrera’s 23-year-old son, who she said would prefer to go by the name “Justin,” was medically diagnosed with anxiety and attention-deficit disorder when he was 6-years-old. Justin also traumatically lost his father at age 7. 

“Of course, he was not a kid that would just sit, you know he had a lot of energy,” said Herrera.

Herrera said that her son was arrested at 11-years-old by school safety agents because of a bag with brass knuckles in it, and that was the beginning of him being “criminalized” in the system. 

Herrera said that even though she works with incarcerated youth and advocated for her son, her son on probation was still arrested throughout his adolescence. “They wind up remanding him, and when they did, I could not find him for three days. He was shocked because he never spent time in a jail besides bookings and those are horrible for him,” said Herrera.

When she found him, she said he had been in the bullpens for three days with no bed, no bath, no phone call, and sleeping on the floor. After that experience, he spent three weeks on Rikers before he was put in an inadequate drug program with inattentive staff, said Herrera. 

Herrera said she’s volunteered on Rikers counseling women and young adults for years so she knows from her job what proper one-on-one treatment and care should be.

Right now, the court system has designed the mental health programs of those struggling with drug addictions or mental health illnesses into separate programs under Law Article 216 of the judicial diversion law. 

“When I visited Rikers Island I saw the humanitarian crisis that was taking place in our backyard. We must shift the paradigm in how we treat the root causes that drive our neighbors to commit crimes. Poor education, low paying jobs & mental health are all contributing factors,” said Senator Jessica Ramos about the bill via twitter.

The Treatment Not Jail Act (TNJ), sponsored by Ramos and Assembly member Andrew Hevesi, firstly expands eligibility treatment for no matter an individual’s charges and fights to ensure there’s an emphasis on treatment and support for incarcerated with disabilities, addictions, mental illnesses, and other health- related challenges. The bill focuses on procedural justice to change the narrative in the court system that “terrifies” so many and advocates for health care professionals to do a thorough evaluation in order to determine if a person will qualify for treatment under this bill. 

LAS’ MICA Project Attorney Jeffrey Berman explained that generally drug courts in New York State do not accept or feel comfortable accepting clients who live with serious mental illness or struggle with serious disabilities despite these applicants otherwise qualifying. 

“You’re totally at the mercy of prosecutors throughout the state,” said Berman.

“What happens then is that the drug courts then push these clients away to be considered for a mental health court. However, mental health courts require full consent of the prosecutor who controls our client’s fate. And too many people are being rejected for treatment and sent to state prison,” added Berman. 

Berman said judges and prosecutors without medical backgrounds are then “gatekeepers” in this arduous process under the judicial diversion courts. He said his clients are forced to admit to charges and are expected to “open up” to strangers about their deeply abusive pasts or traumas in order to even be considered for treatment in mental health court. That whole time they can spend up to a year in jail in the meantime, said Berman.

In addition to demanding the passage of the bill, LAS, Brooklyn Defender Services, and Milbank LLP recently filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Correction (DOC) over its “failure” to provide people with access to medical care while locked up.

“New York City’s jails are in a full-blown humanitarian crisis, resulting in indescribable suffering and at least twelve deaths in 2021, including at least five people who died from suicide,” said Veronica Vela, supervising attorney with LAS Prisoners’ Rights Project in a statement. 

“DOC can no longer deprive our clients of their right to medical care, and if the department is unable to guarantee that right, then the court must immediately consider releasing people.”

In his briefing on Sept. 27, post-visit to the jail, de Blasio said that it was his mission to reduce the incarcerated population, speed up the intake process, improve the situation for corrections officers and incarcerated alike. He also said that he would ensure that crucial health care teams are getting the support they need. 

“The final point, what we have to do––we can’t do it today, we can’t do it tomorrow, but what we have to do as quickly as possible in this city is get off Rikers Island once and for all. That plan is in place. It is moving rapidly. That is the bigger solution. This is not a place that should continue for the long haul,” said de Blasio during the tense briefing, “We need to move to community-based jails.” 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America Corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for the AmsterdamNews. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: