Concerns the system criminalizes mental illness - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Concerns the system criminalizes mental illness

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In 2005, Julie Desautels was a high school basketball star for the Winooski Spartans. But in recent years, she finds herself making her mark at a different court.

"Everybody knows Julie Desautels. She is not a menace to society. She truly is a nuisance," Chittenden County Prosecutor T.J. Donovan said.

Donovan unpacked the 22-year-old's hefty criminal record, thumbing through files in preparation for sentencing day.

Since 2009, Desautels been charged with 89 misdemeanors, 49 violations of court orders, six assaults, one weapons charge and an escape. It's an active criminal history that prosecutors say has cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"And it is a sad story," Donovan said. "It's somebody who really has some talent."

Prosecutors say she often turns herself in for crimes police didn't even know she committed, actions fueled by mental illness and an addiction to alcohol. The state says she sabotages every court offer and it's out of options.

"This is a person who really shouldn't be in jail, but is going to jail because she has demonstrated that she cannot live in this community," Donovan said.

And she's not alone. Donovan says the criminal justice system is forced to deal with this population by default.

"In the absence of real robust community-based mental health services, the criminal justice system ends up as the safety net," Donovan said.

"A number of us in this field are concerned about the criminalization of mental illness," said Bob Wolford of the HowardCenter.

Wolford is mental health liaison for the courts. He says that cuts to mental health spending translate to a larger prison population, with some inmates who shouldn't be there.

"What I'm not wanting to do is create excuses for people who are committing crimes," Wolford said. "But I think something that we have to take into consideration are perhaps the reasons."

Wolford says head injuries and chronic mental illness can directly impact a person's impulse control, judgment and ability to make decisions.

"It's not as if she is someone who doesn't accept responsibility for her acts, but without that consequence they just seem to continue over and over again," said Justin Jiron, a deputy prosecutor for Chittenden County.

In Desautels' case, the judge agreed that jail time was warranted even if it meant jeopardizing her college education. The repeat offender will spend her spring break from Johnson State College behind bars.

"She's got to learn to control her behaviors outside of the classroom," Vt. Superior Court Judge Brian Grearson said.

A judge at his wits' end hoping 19 days in jail will break the cycle and give the once star athlete another shot at success.

Desautels recently told police she was also responsible for shooting up a CCTA bus stop with a BB gun earlier this month. The judge ordered her to return to court in May to answer to that allegation and other outstanding charges. She could spend her summer break in prison.

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