NYLS expands mental disability law with joint degree

New York Law School students will soon be able to get a joint degree in law and a master's in mental disability law studies in four years, instead of five.

In May 2010, NYLS teamed up with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a college within the City University of New York located nearly five miles north in Manhattan. Starting next fall, the schools will offer the joint degree together.

“It will provide students the great benefits of having courses being taught from the two perspectives of the psychology faculty and the law faculty as well and having classmates in both disciplines,” said Liane Bass, senior administrator
of NYLS' online mental disability law program, which launched in 2000 with one class.

The program has come a long way since then. In recent years, it expanded through partnerships at other law schools in the U.S. and abroad.

“We offer more courses in mental disability than any other law school in the world. Most law schools offer zero or one — we offer 13,” said Professor Michael Perlin, who designed and teaches the program.

The program aims to train lawyers to represent a gamut of people with mental disabilities, like homeless persons, sexually violent predators and those committed to institutions. But courses are not just targeted at future lawyers. The program is branded as an M.A., not an LL.M., in order to attract mental health professionals rather than just law students.

Domestic and international students include attorneys, forensic psychologists, psychiatrists, other mental health professionals, human rights workers, advocates and activists.

The course list includes Mental Health Issues in Jails and Prisons; Sex Offenders; Forensic Reports, the Role of Experts and Forensic Ethics; and Mental Disability and Criminal Law.

The program is being shortened from five years to four because students can now essentially “double dip” 12 of the credits, Perlin said.

Some of the classes are online, while the rest are an in-classroom format. Perlin is the only full-time professor, but between 15 and 20 adjuncts teach within the program. Teachers from across the country teach its online courses, giving Perlin “the whole nation to choose from,” he said.

About 20 students will take the program each year and demand will be gauged from there.

Every state has a federally-funded disability rights office that must offer legal services to people with disabilities, and he said the combination degree would help grads fill some of those slots.

Students who score jobs with the Bronx D.A. or as a Brooklyn public defender tell Perlin they get hired because of their unique backgrounds in forensic psychology and law.

It also gives students an upper leg when it comes to getting a Ph.D. in psychology, teaching psychology or doing psychology research on a high level, as well as pursuing family law.

He admits that popular crime TV shows have upped the allure of pursuing such degrees.

“CSI has sparked interested in forensic-everything programs,” he said. “It keeps it out there so people know about it. They know about it more than when I did in law school at Columbia.”

However, the glamorous-looking crime labs and job duties presented on the shows couldn't be further from real life.

“I laugh at that. When I teach criminal procedure, in seven minutes students realize it has nothing to do with these TV shows,” he said, adding that, “the original Law & Order had it right.”

To picture the real life scenarios graduates may face, take Louis Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Schlesinger, who has an expertise in extraordinary crime, recently commented on the serial rape pattern of Delta Sigma Theta sorority alumnae in the Dallas area.

“It’s very unusual that this guy would target people from that sorority,” Schlesinger told the Dallas Morning News. “It certainly sounds like he has some beef with that sorority.”

He said serial rapists typically target their victims based on certain criteria, like age or vulnerability.