Make Kendra’s Law permanent: It protects the mentally ill — and the public

Chief of police for the Town of New Windsor, NY
Vice President of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police.

New York Post April 25, 2010

Society has taken responsibility for the mentally ill away from the doctors and handed it to the criminal justice system. As a police chief, I see it everyday — the homeless, psychotic and disturbed taken to jail more frequently than anyone would want.

According to a soon-to-be-released study of all 50 states by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey of the Treatment Advocacy Center, as of 2005 there were approximately 15,000 mentally ill New Yorkers in jails and state prisons and only 12,000 hospitalized. So in New York, you are more likely to be jailed for serious mental illness than treated.

Andrew Goldstein pushed Kendra Webdale to her death in 1999; a law named after her allows courts to require mentally ill people to be medicated.

That scares me, and not just professionally. I have a family member with schizophrenia. I would like her to be treated for her illness, not jailed because of lack of treatment. Right now, the main thing keeping her safe in the community is her participation in “Kendra’s Law,” a vital state program that unfortunately is due to expire on June 30.

Kendra’s Law allows courts to require individuals with serious mental illness — who have a past history of violence or hospitalization caused by going off treatment — to accept treatment as a condition for living in the community. That treatment likely includes medications and always a case manager to ensure compliance.

Kendra’s Law was enacted in 1999 and named after Kendra Webdale, who was pushed to her death in front of a subway car by Andrew Goldstein, an untreated mentally ill man. It was conceived by families of the mentally ill, like mine, who didn’t want their treatment-resistant relatives to become another Goldstein (now serving 25 years to life).

Being court-ordered to accept treatment — and having the mental health system ordered to deliver it — has been at minimum a dream come true, and possibly a life-saving experience for my family. It lifted a seriously mentally ill young woman from being isolated and psychotic as a result of not believing she’s ill and refusing treatment, to being in school, learning a trade and living semi-independently. And she is not the exception.

A study by Columbia University found individuals under court orders were four times less likely to become violent than those in a control group. Other studies found Kendra’s Law:

* Keeps the public safer by reducing physical harm to others (47%) and property destruction (43%)

* Helps the mentally ill by reducing homelessness (74%); suicide attempts (55%); and substance abuse (48%)

* Saves money by reducing hospitalization (77%); arrests (83%); and incarceration (87%).

With such a track record, you might think that making Kendra’s Law permanent is a no-brainer for Albany. Think again. In deference to groups who claim (falsely) to represent the “rights” of patients to reject treatment, the state Office of Mental Health has proposed only to postpone the expiration date to 2015, leaving families like mine to continue to worry about the day they decide to pull the plug. That’s dangerous for the public and dangerous for the police and my family. Kendra’s Law should be made permanent and improved. It is the only law that I know of that protects the public, cares for the severely mentally ill and saves the taxpayers money to boot (i.e., in avoided costs of jailing, prosecuting and hospitalizing people).

Kendra’s Law is supported by organizations I admire: the National Alliance on Mental Illness, District Attorney’s Association of the State of New York, National Sheriff’s Association, Greater New York Hospital Association, Public Employees Federation, my own NYS Association of Chiefs of Police and others. I can’t understand how the Office of Mental Health does not see permanency of this law as a priority.

Fortunately, Democratic Assembly member Aileen Gunther, a former nurse, and Republican state Sen. Catherine Young have introduced a bill to make Kendra’s Law permanent and even improve it. Their bill eliminates the loophole in the current law, whereby someone can avoid mandated treatment simply by moving to a different county. They close the crack in the system that allows individuals who are involuntarily committed to inpatient treatment because they are “dangerous to self or others” to be released before determining whether they are in need of court-ordered outpatient treatment. By contrast, OMH proposes that the law be left unchanged.

Kendra’s Law is not a draconian rule that forces our will on the mentally ill. In fact, of the 650,000 individuals OMH treats for mental-health issues, only the sickest of the sick — 1,800 individuals — are affected by it. And of those, 81% reported that the law helps them get and stay well.

Kendra’s Law works. When this issue is discussed in Albany, I hope our legislators will invite the police, sheriffs, district attorneys, and correctional officials who now deal more with severely mentally ill persons than OMH does.

In 1999, Sheldon Silver and Republican leaders gathered a combined vote in the Assembly and Senate of 191 to 6 in favor of enacting the law. I hope before it expires they can get the votes to make it permanent and improve it. Do it for the sake of law enforcement, the severely mentally ill, their families and the safety of the general public.