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Mental Health Court Likely Coming to Manhattan by 2011

By DNAinfo Staff on August 2, 2010 7:00am

Manhattan's mental health court will be held at 100 Centre Street, where most of the criminal docket is already handled.
Manhattan's mental health court will be held at 100 Centre Street, where most of the criminal docket is already handled.
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By Shayna Jacobs

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MUNICIPAL DISTRICT — The Manhattan Supreme Court is looking to open a special court designed to handle cases involving people with mental illness in 2011, the state's Office of Court Administration told DNAinfo.

Mental health courts already exist in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn and elsewhere across the state. Generally defendants with mental disorders are ordered to undergo psychiatric counseling and outpatient therapy instead of being sent to jail pending the outcome of their case.

The court, which will be at 100 Centre Street, will be presided over by Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan, who said he was drawn to the position because of his background as a family court judge.

Cy Vance moderated a panel called
Cy Vance moderated a panel called "New Perspectives on Prosecution" on Wednesday at John Jay College.
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Manhattan District Attorney's Office

"I've seen in family court how juveniles react to counseling, how they react to medication and how they react to people being encouraging and positive," Merchan told DNAinfo.

The court will start with a limited number of defendants.

"It will be impossible to accept everyone. We're staring kind of small," the judge said.

Court officials expect the costs of the new court to be covered by local mental health facilities.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. announced his support for a mental health court in the borough during last year's campaign, and restated it during a criminal justice summit he hosted this week.

Vance told DNAinfo at the summit that he looks forward to the new court because his goal is to reduce recidivism among the city's criminals in innovative ways.

Court officials hope to begin accepting cases early next year. Until then, they are ironing out policies and working to establish partnerships with mental health facilities that they hope will accept the cases.

Cases will be referred to the court by defense attorneys, family members of defendants and occasionally prosecutors, but not all mentally ill criminals will be eligible.

"Just because a person has a mental illness doesn't necessarily mean they'll be going to the mental health court," said Karen Friedman-Agnifilo, the executive assistant district attorney and chief of the trial division. "Many, many factors go into this decision."

For example, defendants on murder charges will not likely be considered for the new court. As for other violent offenders, the office will consider their eligibility on a case-by-case basis.

"There will obviously be some cases that are just too serious that we'll say no," she added.