A look inside the mental health courthouse

Erick Tavira went to Metropolitan Hospital to receive mental health treatment in June 2021.

Instead, surveillance video obtained by NY1 shows he went unseen and was arrested after arguing with a security officer there in what his family’s attorney said was part of a psychotic episode.

Another arrest a week later for assault and strangulation sent him to Rikers Island.

Those incidents, her family said, happened because she didn’t get the care she needed.

“If he asked to be seen, and they didn’t see him, that was a crime,” said Haydeth Tavira, Erick Tavira’s mother, through an interpreter. “It is not a crime to ask for help, to ask for medicines, treatments. What they did to him is not right.”

In her last court appearance before she died, it was clear that Tavira’s lawyer was looking for an alternative.

What you need to know

  • A month before he died, Erick Tavira’s public defender was trying to take him to mental health court in Manhattan
  • The Manhattan District Attorney’s office did not want to accept him in the program
  • Lawyers and defense attorneys say these courts are highly selective and impossible to enter

According to a Sept. 29, 2022 court transcript in the New York Supreme Court, Tavira’s public defender said that his client “is suffering from mental health and substance abuse, and it’s a pretty serious mental health condition, Judge. The ADA assigned” – the assistant district attorney – “we both agreed that the reason for these two incidents 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 mental health tribunal or the case will be sent to the ATI,” an alternative program to incarceration.

At the time, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office was not open to Tavira, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, sent to court for mental health — an alternative to incarceration aimed at getting people with severe mental illness.

Tavira would return to prison where he would die less than a month later by suicide.

“It is tragic that we have had a number of deaths on Rikers Island,” said Alvin Bragg, in an exclusive interview with NY1.

The Manhattan District Attorney declined to discuss the details of Tavira’s case.

“We do a holistic review that certainly looks at the nature of the crime, medical history, mental health treatment history, a whole range of factors,” Bragg said. “For privacy reasons, I cannot go into individual cases and details.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the district attorney went further:

“Because of the worrying nature of the alleged conduct in these cases – an assault on a peace officer and a subsequent attack on a 14-year-old boy and a Good Samaritan less than a week later – people did not feel comfortable in the release Mr Tavira to an unsafe facility, which would have been part of any mental health court or alternative to prison provision DA Bragg supports the creation of safe facilities for the treatment of people accused of violent offences.

Meanwhile, hundreds of inmates on Rikers Island have serious mental illnesses. Defense attorneys, families and attorneys say the alternative to keeping them behind bars — which is potentially taking cases to mental health court — is selective and nearly impossible to obtain.

An NY1 investigation found that these courts, spread across the five boroughs, have different standards for accepting people. In 2022, many of them only caught a few dozen new felony cases.

NY1 found that all local district attorneys have different requirements for referring defendants to these courts.

And the judges also have different approaches.

Brooklyn, for example, accepts most cases. That courthouse had 98 new ones in 2022.

Participants meet Judge Matthew D’Emic on a regular basis. They review their progress in treatment programs, which they must participate in as part of their guilty plea to enter.

When they do well, they are greeted with applause.

“We review these cases very carefully and determine if the risk can be managed,” D’Emic said. “And look a little further, deeper than the allegations to see what’s really going on. There are very few cases that can be excluded.

Most of their participants, Judge says, are graduates of the program.

Of course not all go as planned.

One of their participants was shot and killed during an altercation with police last year.

“It had a very tragic ending,” D’Emic said.

Even so, these cases are rare, he says.

Ultimately, he says, they keep people out of jail and into treatment.

“A lot of this is politically what the community is willing to accept,” the judge said. “We’ve been lucky in Brooklyn because from Joe Hynes to Ken Thompson to Eric Gonzalez, we’ve had district attorneys who are not only eager but actively trying to divert people in these courts and not every county has that.”

The numbers in other districts are lower.

The Manhattan District Attorney says he is limited in the number of cases the mental health court can take.

That court took 38 new cases in 2022.

“We are for expanding the mental health court,” Bragg said. “I am for the expansion of the mental health court. A feature of Manhattan contractually is that we can only have 50 issues at a time. When you compare that to the size of our registry and the need for mental health, the crisis, in Manhattan and in the city, isn’t adequate.

He says he wants to quadruple that number.

In Queens, the mental health court accepted 23 new cases in 2022.

“It’s a small number, but what has no effect are the people who filed their claim last year or the year before and who I’m still monitoring now,” said Judge Marcia Hirsch, who oversees the court for mental health in Queens. “I also have people with serious mental illnesses in my Veterans Treatment Court, my Drug Treatment Court in my DWI Treatment Court, and 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 them. We’ve already talked to lawyers,” Hirsch said. “What holds them back are the psychosocial assessments and risk assessments that have to be done so that a treatment plan can be put together and that gets bogged down in the system.”

Lawyers and public defenders are pushing legislation, called “Non-Jail Treatment,” in Albany to try to standardize and expand these courts. But his fate, for now, is uncertain.

For now, those who fail to enter may have to stay on Rikers.

“They too dream of coming out and doing something new in their life, a new opportunity,” Erick Tavira’s mother told NY1. “This is what my son wanted. He said that when he came out, he would do better and behave himself.

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