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Letter: Death And The Criminal Justice System

The hanging of Sgt. Bart Ryan at the Nassau Jail presents the sad story of a distinguished veteran who deserved better medical care, but also of a prisoner who died. The criminal justice system does not provide adequate safeguards to screen new arrestees for serious psychological and drug or alcohol problems that require treatment prior to release or incarceration. Judges at arraignment set bail that will help to ensure a defendant’s reappearance in court if released. If a defendant is not likely to be released and medical defense counsel requests care, then a judge may indicate it on a commitment order. It is not a routine procedure for all arrestees, even those who are repeat offenders with indications of serious psychological, drug and alcohol problems. It should be.

Police officers, pretrial release or parole and probation officers as well as hospital and jail personnel should be trained in recognizing suicide risks and other severe psychological problems often endemic among repeat offenders, particularly those exhibiting drug problems. Mental health professionals should be on staff at precincts, in our courthouses, in our jails and in our hospitals.

Sending someone to jail even for a short time can have serious consequences for the life and safety of defendants, other inmates and jail personnel. The Nassau County Jail has a long history of deaths by suicide or abuse by guards who are overworked, underpaid and often poorly trained in recognizing psychological and emotional states of prisoners that mandate immediate medical treatment rather than just jail.

There is a prison ward at the Nassau County Medical Center, which needs to be expanded and improved with more and better-trained staff. Nassau and other counties have specialized drug and mental health courts, but the delay in getting to those courts from arraignment must also be corrected. Intervention by those courts and referral to them should occur at arraignment.

Nassau County, New York and the federal government need a task force that can assess our criminal justice system from top to bottom while recognizing that jails alone are not necessarily a cure for the psychological, drug and alcohol problems which we as a society face. Sound medical care and alternatives to jail are what is needed, not more jails and longer sentences. If we do not provide for these services now, then we will continue to pay for our failures in doing so with more deaths and costly lawsuits to follow. Being tough in crime also requires common sense.

Thomas F. Liotti
Garden City Attorney
Westbury Village Justice
NYSBA Criminal Justice Former Chair
NCBA Former Chair