As New York City reckons with a shortage of psychiatric beds and other resources, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has set aside $9 million to help individuals experiencing mental illness — and, when possible, keep them out of the court system.

“We’re in the middle of a mental health crisis with people in distress, particularly coming out of the pandemic,” Bragg said. “This is an initiative to really focus on that.”

The $9 million — which comes from a fund created in 2014 under former District Attorney Cy Vance after the office seized hundreds of millions of dollars in financial crimes cases — has been earmarked for two programs: one embedded in neighborhoods throughout the borough and one within the courts.

Some of the funding will go to community-based organizations to connect with people on the streets who have mental health needs, in the hopes of preventing them from cycling in and out of the criminal justice system before they end up in a courtroom. Outreach workers will be based in a handful of neighborhoods, including Washington Heights, Chinatown, Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen.

The rest of the money will pay for court-based workers to help those who have already been arrested to navigate the legal system and get the resources they need. They may connect someone who is hungry with a food pantry, assist an unemployed person with job applications or coordinate transportation for supervised release appointments — tasks that Bragg said could feel “Herculean” for someone without an Outlook calendar.

“The churn through our courts that is happening now, more acutely after the pandemic but has been happening for quite some time, is something that we believe these programs will help,” he said.

How is it that in the richest city, in the richest country in the world, we let people die on the street from untreated mental illness?
Councilmember Erik Bottcher

People experiencing mental illness in New York City are incarcerated at disproportionate rates. A monitor’s report published earlier this year found that about half of people in city jails receive treatment for mental illness. The percentages are even higher for those who spend longer amounts of time in jail — almost two thirds of those who are jailed for more than a year and 70% of those who are held for more than two years.

Bragg’s announcement comes just weeks after Mayor Eric Adams directed first responders to forcibly take people to hospitals for psychiatric evaluations if they cannot meet their own “basic needs,” even if they don’t present an immediate danger to themselves or others. That decision has sparked criticism from civil liberties advocates, outreach workers and some people who have been committed to psychiatric hospitals in the past. They worry that people’s rights could be violated or that people who need support may retreat further into the margins, out of fear that they will be hospitalized against their will if police find them.

But unlike the mayor’s plan, this program will be completely voluntary.

“Let this be the beginning of a turning point in our approach to address these issues,” Councilmember Erik Bottcher, who represents Hell’s Kitchen, said at a press conference announcing the funding.

Bottcher said that he spent a month in a psychiatric hospital when he was 13, after several failed suicide attempts, and received treatment that saved his life. But he said the city needs to invest in more “meaningful interventions” to save people’s lives.

“How is it that in the richest city, in the richest country in the world, we let people die on the street from untreated mental illness? How do we let people cycle in and out of the courtroom, in and out of jail, 50, 60, 75, 100 times, without meaningful interventions?” Bottcher said. “We have failed so badly on our approach to these issues.”