Many New Yorkers charged with crimes will be connected with mental health and housing services soon after their first court appearances in an effort to speed treatment, Manhattan’s district attorney said on Wednesday.
The $9 million initiative, which will also include community outreach that is separate from the court system, will help defendants, some of whom now wait weeks or months before gaining access to care, said Alvin Bragg, the district attorney.
Mr. Bragg said the program will focus on repeat offenders and “a high-needs population,” with the goal to prevent people from cycling in and out of the courts and Rikers Island jails.
“Everyone has that person they’ve seen in their neighborhood for years, the one who disappears for a time and always comes back,” he said. “Sometimes those people are at Rikers, our leading mental health facility. And we can’t have that. We need to do something different.”
The city continues to grapple with how best to protect public safety while also providing assistance to those with mental health issues. Mentally ill people have long lived on the streets and taken shelter in the subway system, where chance encounters with the police and civilians can quickly boil over and sometimes lead to severe injuries or even deaths.
Mayor Eric Adams rolled out a plan earlier this month that gives the police more discretion to remove homeless New Yorkers whose behavior appears to threaten themselves or others and take them to a hospital for treatment.
That plan was challenged last week in Manhattan federal court. Advocates for mentally ill people said involuntary removals would violate constitutional rights. On Wednesday, the judge, Paul Crotty, declined to grant their call for a temporary restraining order but said he would hold hearings in the case in coming weeks.
Participation in Mr. Bragg’s initiative, unlike the Adams plan, is voluntary. Mr. Bragg said on Wednesday that his program has been in the works for months and is unrelated to the mayor’s proposal.
The first phase, which will cost about $6 million, will include 36 social service workers, who will reach out to homeless people on the Lower East Side and in Chinatown; in Washington Heights and Inwood; Central and East Harlem; Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea and west Midtown. The workers will first help people get basic items like food and clothing and then connect them to behavioral health services and permanent housing.
Community programs in those neighborhoods will each receive roughly $1.4 million in grant money to support six months of planning and three years of implementation. Additional funding may also go to other neighborhoods based on need.
In the second phase of the plan, social workers will meet defendants in Manhattan criminal court following their arraignments, the initial court hearings where they hear the allegations against them. The workers can then help defendants get clothing, MetroCards and meals, followed by connections to long-term treatment programs and supportive housing. They can also assist defendants to make sure they don’t miss their court appearances.
Doug Cohen, a spokesman for the district attorney, said that there are no set criteria for which defendants can be connected to the services. Still, the resources will be geared toward people who are released from custody into the community. Those charged with serious crimes are more likely to be held in jail as their cases progress.
Mr. Bragg said his office plans to measure the program’s progress in part by watching how many people actually want to take advantage of these community services. But he said he hopes to expand the program over time by connecting more people with affordable housing and other supportive services.
The “criminal justice system must not be the main vehicle for addressing mental and behavioral health,” he said. “By addressing these human needs, we address the broader needs of public safety.”