In the wake of the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people, New York governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature should look closely at the state’s gun and mental-health policies—both are in need of reform. New York was ahead of the curve in 2013, when it passed the NY SAFE Act requiring therapists to report the names of mentally ill people under their care believed to be dangerous and to have guns. The law requires county mental-health directors to investigate the reports, and if appropriate, instruct criminal-justice authorities to seize guns from the disturbed individuals and enter their names into a database, with the goal of precluding them from purchasing guns in the future.
The legislature should amend the SAFE Act to require more than just the removal of guns; it should mandate that officials evaluate these mentally ill individuals for inclusion in Kendra’s Law, New York’s most successful program for dealing with potentially violent, mentally ill people who fail to comply with treatment. Kendra’s Law lets courts order individuals who have engaged in “one or more acts, attempts or threats of serious violent behavior toward self or others” to receive up to one year of treatment while they continue to live in the community. It has reduced incarceration, homelessness, and hospitalization by around 70 percent, saving taxpayers 50 percent of the cost of care.
Kendra’s Law itself needs to be made permanent and strengthened. We have identified more than 20 technical changes that would keep patients, the public, and police safer, but perhaps the most important change is to get the New York State Office of Mental Health to take leadership in implementing the law. At the Joint Budget Hearing on mental health in February, OMH Commissioner Ann Sullivan did not even mention Kendra’s Law, in spite of multiple questions from legislators on how to reduce the mental illness-to-jail pipeline. OMH regularly sends its speakers to community events, but none of the brochures they hand out tell family members how to get loved ones into Kendra’s Law. Governor Cuomo should insist that mental-health departments focus on helping the most seriously ill, rather than concentrating on the “worried well.”
To prevent a Parkland-like event, New York State must also supplement its overly restrictive involuntary-commitment laws. Current law requires individuals to be a present danger to self or others before they can be mandatorily treated. But laws should prevent violence, not require it. New York should add “grave disability,” “need for treatment,” and “lack of capacity” commitment standards to supplement its “danger to self or others” standard. If Florida had done that, Nikolas Cruz, who was known to be mentally ill, might have met the standard needed to hospitalize him. Finally, New York should allow families and police to seek gun-violence restraining orders in order to remove guns from the seriously mentally ill, and prevent them from purchasing guns in the future.
These are reasonable and limited reforms that would make New York safer and improve the lives of the mentally ill. In his State of the State address in January, Governor Cuomo said, “Some jurisdictions say case law prevents them from helping mentally ill street homeless. If that is their excuse, they should tell us what law stops them from helping sick homeless people and we will change the law.”
We’ve just told him.