The Law Preventing Subway Pushers is Kind of a Mess


Kendra’s Law — which enacted stronger bureaucratic safeguards for mandatory treatment of the mentally ill after journalist Kendra Webdale was fatally pushed onto subway tracks in 1999 by a schizophrenic man who had stopped taking his medications — has gotten a lot of recent attention in the wake of that other horrible subway pushing incident (and its horrible coverage in the New York Post). And, as it turns out, it hasn’t necessarily been doing what it’s supposed to do.

Along with gun laws, the Wall Street Journal reports, the mental health provisions in Kendra’s Law are up for re-negotiation in hopes of fixing significant loopholes that allow patients to skirt treatment by simply moving to a new county, or for court orders to lapse after 6 months of treatment.

“Kendra’s law spends a lot of money trying to force a small number of people into treatment,” said the director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services of the 1,800 state residents treated annually. “It misuses precious resources that really distract us from what’s really needed: a fully responsive, accountable, engaging mental health service system.”

A source close to Erika Menendez, who is charged with shoving a man to his death on a subway platform last month, added, “We tried to get into every program in the world. And all they gave us was the ACT team [a voluntary Assertive Community Treatment program]. You tell me what the system has done to help Erika? Nothing.” It is not currently known whether or not Menendez received any treatment related to Kendra’s Law.

“She should have been under a court order to stay in treatment as a condition of living in the community,” noted DJ Jaffe of Mental Illness Policy Org, adding, “It’s not an alternative to a voluntary system. It’s for those who failed a voluntary system. Kendra’s law is less restrictive, less expensive, more humane than the alternative which is incarceration or hospitalization.”

Which is certainly true. And a contested recent study did find that those enrolled in the Kendra’s Law program end up with fewer arrests and hospitalizations. The program has also been found not to disproportionately target particular ethnic groups, or create an increased stigma around a patient’s mental illness.

Proposed amendments to the law currently include the possibility of a full court-ordered year in the program, as well as exit evaluations from jails and hospitals determining if a person meets criteria for the program, and pamphlets explaining to family members how to file reports. “I think there’s a heightened awareness among the public because of recent tragedies,” said the Senator who sponsored the initial legislation. “I think that that gives us a lot of momentum.” Hopefully that’s the case, and we’ll be hearing more about this legislation before something terrible and preventable happens this time.

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.


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