Charged with attacking Zeldin, Iraq vet must navigate path to mental health treatment


ALBANY — Hours after he tackled David G. Jakubonis to the ground to separate him from U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin at a campaign rally outside Rochester, Joe Chenelly began reaching out to his military veterans’ contacts. 

Chenelly is the executive director of AMVETS, one the largest veteran service organizations in the nation. His first outreach was to Monroe County’s top veteran services official. In the parking lot near the campaign event stage — just across from the local VFW hall — the two men determined the system had failed Jakubonis, and they recognized their fellow veteran would need help.

The events that followed took Jakubonis, a combat veteran who served in Iraq and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, from a local courtroom to home, then a day later to a federal court and finally to jail. It was a journey that highlights the disparities between how the two criminal justice systems provide mental health treatment to someone accused of a crime.

On the state side, Jakubonis’ access to treatment may have been available through a complicated set of rules and resources. On the federal side, treatment is more within reach — but that’s primarily because he remains in a county jail while awaiting trial in a process that could take months. 

Experts, elected officials and attorneys interviewed for this story provided a range of views on how the local justice court in Monroe County could have steered Jakubonis toward mental health services.

Some were doubtful that those services would realistically be available, especially in rural areas of upstate or overwhelmed communities such as New York City. Others noted that diversion to a specialized treatment court was unlikely in this case given a lack of resources or incentive, especially under current eligibility standards. 

Nearly all interviewed, regardless of political persuasion, agreed that Jakubonis should be able to access mental health services that are tailored to help him recover — both for his own sake and for the safety of the community. 

“I don’t think that the services provided while he’s incarcerated are anywhere near what he needs — and that’s not just because he’s a veteran,” said Chenelly, a Republican who is running in a swing Assembly district in Monroe County that is currently held by a Democrat.

Chenelly has spoken with Jakubonis’ legal team, which is working to have him released from jail on the condition that he enter an inpatient treatment program with the Veterans Administration. A hearing is set for Aug. 24 — roughly a month after he was taken into federal custody. 

“Unfortunately, in our society in general we lock them away — we forget about them — until they come back out and do something bad again,” Chenelly said.

Navigating the system

The day after Jakubonis walked onto the stage at Zeldin’s July 21 campaign event and approached the congressman with a pointed key chain — described by police as a defensive weapon — he was arraigned in Perinton Town Court for attempted assault. The felony charge was not eligible for bail; the judge lacked the ability to send him to jail.

Jakubonis was released the following day on his own recognizance without any supervised conditions, like checking in with a parole officer, or participating in mandated programs related to mental health or substance abuse treatment.

The judge’s decision would spark the latest chapter in the already highly politicized debate over the state’s bail laws that Zeldin and Republicans statewide have put near the center of their campaign messaging.

Zeldin blamed the state’s bail laws for not allowing a judge to hold Jakubonis because he may be dangerous to the public. “The state must start prioritizing the safety of law-abiding New Yorkers over criminals,” the candidate said in a statement the following day. 

Jakubonis was arrested July 23 on federal charges of assaulting the congressman. In the federal court, where judges can consider someone’s “dangerousness” along with their mental health as a factor in release decisions, Jakubonis was sent to jail. 

“I’m thankful that federal authorities came in to do what New York state’s broken pro-criminal justice system could not — uphold the rule of law,” Zeldin said. He would subsequently release a campaign ad that featured Jakubonis as a frightening example of the purported failures of the state’s bail laws. 

Over recent days, Zeldin’s tone has softened at times — at least in relation to Jakubonis. Zeldin described the issue as a military veteran “not getting help from the system.”

He attributed the state’s bail laws as why Jakubonis was unable to get help. If he had been detained by a judge, Zeldin said, Jakubonis could have received mental health services or support from veterans groups. 

“You can use this as one particular example, but there are many different examples of where someone gets put right back out on the street, very quickly,” Zeldin said at a news conference a week after the incident. “They can’t get those services.”

The judge could have set nonmonetary conditions as a condition of his release from custody that included access to services. It is more complicated on whether they could have mandated inpatient treatment.

His campaign spokeswoman told the Times Union that it’s clear the man “needs assistance battling a variety of demons.”

“As an Army veteran himself, Congressman Zeldin is incredibly sympathetic to that,” Katie Vincentz said in a statement. “While he’s not going to get ahead of the judge’s ruling, he does support Mr. Jakubonis getting the help he needs and … is confident that the judge’s decision will be in that vein.”

Jakubonis being released by the town justice with “no resources, no help and on one to turn to” is “how he got there in the first place,” Vincentz said.

Zeldin though continues to run the ad featuring Jakubonis as a man aggressively attacking him. In an interview this week with Fox Business, the host described Jakubonis as a “guy who looked to be off his rocker to say the least.” Zeldin said if, “I wasn’t wasn’t a member of Congress, this person would be out on the streets.” 

Jakubonis’ initial attorney, federal public defender Steven Slawinski, asked the court to release his client to a VA inpatient program. Since U.S. Magistrate Judge Marian Payson did not have Jakubonis’ medical records at hand, she ruled he would be detained until further review of those documents. Jakubonis is now represented by John L. DeMarco, a former Monroe County Court judge who presided over the area’s veterans treatment court. 

Slawinski said Jakubonis has a history of anxiety and is disabled from his time in Baghdad. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his service. 

Jakubonis was drinking heavily before the incident, Slawinski said. He had been receiving outpatient treatment services from the VA, but had relapsed.

“He will not get any substantive treatment at the jail,” the attorney said in an interview. 

The jail has a program to group veterans together for peer-to-peer support, but inmates have been isolating because of an outbreak of COVID-19. 

“We could be using all this time between now and disposition productively,” DeMarco said. “Hopefully that’s the way it’ll pan out.” 

‘Great need to assist’

Four times over five years, Jakubonis tried to check himself into the VA for inpatient services, Chenelly said, but he had missed scheduled appointments because he was self-medicating.

The VA, through a spokesman, said that although the administration works hard to follow up with its clients about potential treatment, if the person repeatedly misses appointments it can’t force them to go. 

Like many organizations, the VA has seen a rise in people seeking mental health services, spokesman Peter Potter of the Stratton VA Medical Center said. Since the onset of the pandemic, when people began to isolate and lose out on typical programming, he said there’s been a 3,000 percent increase in the demand for telehealth services.

Prosecutors have also seen an increasing number of people in need of mental health services related to their passage through criminal courts. 

“We have great need to assist people who find themselves in the criminal justice system due to conditions that are caused by some form of mental health affliction,” Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan said. “We simply lack those dynamic resources to help you.” 

More services such as access to treatment courts are badly needed, said Jordan, the president of the District Attorneys Association of New York.

With many offenses no longer bail-eligible, Jordan said, courts have fewer tools to incentivize defendants to go to inpatient treatment or divert them to a mental health, veterans or drug courts. Statewide, there are about 240 people actively participating in a veterans treatment court, the Office of Court Administration said Friday. 

“How do you help someone who is struggling, and then it causes them to commit some crime?” Jordan said. “We don’t have those tools in our arsenal to help them.”

The lack of services for the mentally ill contributes to a cycle of crime. About half of the people at Rikers Island in New York City have a mental illness, according to the Legal Aid Society.

“Although they know what they’re doing, their actions are influenced in such a great extent by their addiction or by their mental health illness,” Jordan said. “If you can address that core issue, you can likely prevent that recidivism.” 

An update to the state’s bail laws this April allows judges to send someone for a mental health evaluation or involuntary assessment pending their release.

The standard is high, requiring a person to clearly be a serious and immediate risk of harm to themselves or others. Experts agreed that Jakubonis likely did not fit that threshold, but were split on whether the update to the law was intended to nudge someone like him toward inpatient treatment services. There are mechanisms within the state’s mental hygiene law that could be used, but prosecutors and defense lawyers were either less familiar with them or said that the actual implementation is often difficult. 

Advocates note people with mental illness are no more dangerous than people without those conditions, and oftentimes are more likely to be the targets of violence.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, has pushed for multiple years a “Treatment Not Jails Act,” which would open up the use of treatment courts to not just people accused of felonies, but also misdemeanors. It would remove a requirement for a defendant to plead guilty before entering the treatment court.

Under her legislation, it could create a pathway for people accused of offenses that a judge cannot set bail or remand on, and a new incentive to go to a treatment court by providing the possibility of having the charge thrown out upon completion of the program. 

“I’m a big believer in wanting to protect a victim’s rights,” Ramos said. “The best way to honor the victim is to ensure (the defendant) can’t hurt anybody else again. What’s the best way? The best way obviously is not to throw them away in a dungeon and forget about them. That’s what we’ve been doing and that’s not working.” 

She stressed the damage that could occur from someone being held before trial in jail, losing their job and upending their family. Instead, Ramos said, the goal should be to get the person treatment to reduce recidivism. 

Potter, with the VA, said that lawyers operating within the state system sometimes forget to fold in the resources the Veterans Administration can provide.

If a defense lawyer or family reaches out after a veteran who is enrolled in the VA is arrested — even on a local charge — they can help provide one of its “Veterans Justice Operation” specialists to help them navigate the system. 

“It’s much better to get to the heart of ‘Why?’ and treat it,” Potter said. “If a patient comes in and they’re having a problem with PTSD, going to jail is not going to solve anything. But getting treatment for PTSD, if that’s what’s causing the issue — what better way can we respond to it?” 


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