Where can Vermont place repeat offenders suffering from mental illness?
BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Are people falling through the cracks of Vermont’s mental health and criminal justice systems? State leaders are working to find solutions for repeat offenders who can’t go to prison but aren’t fit for a hospital.
There are Vermonters who are arrested, brought to courthouses, put into mental health custody and then released.
On the streets of St. Johnsbury last week, police say Micael Bizuneh, 33, vandalized 42 cars, smashing windshields.
“We were not aware of Mr. Bizuneh being in our area. We found he was at the Fairbanks Inn for one night. And in that one night, he did all of that damage,” St. Johnsbury Police Ofc. Gerald Schartner said.
Bizuneh is being held in the Northeast Correctional Facility on $1,000 bail.
This is the sixth community where police say Bizuneh has vandalized cars, including this summer at the Burlington Police Department.
Each time, Bizuneh has been arrested. But each time, prosecutors have to dismiss charges because he’s not considered competent and can’t be placed in jail. Custody is then transferred to the Department of Mental Health on Orders of Non-Hospitalization, but they can’t give him inpatient services because he doesn’t meet the criteria.
“We are, as prosecutors, at our wits’ end as to what to do with a lot of these folks and how to get them connected to services in any meaningful way,” Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said.
This revolving door takes up time and resources across Vermont’s law enforcement, judiciary and mental health systems. It’s a cycle some say highlights a perceived crack between Vermont’s mental health and criminal justice systems.
“We’ve seen more cases like this where people are sent to a facility like this but don’t qualify, but they may qualify for a forensic mental health facility,” Vt. Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said.
That type of model exists in Connecticut. It’s what’s called a forensic mental health system. It’s like a halfway house for people involved in the justice system between psychiatric facilities like the Brattleboro Retreat and less-restrained community mental health centers.
“We do need to deal with people whose behaviors need care and let’s just make sure it’s the right level for the problem,” said Dr. Louis Josephson of the Brattleboro Retreat.
The state has assembled a task force to identify the problem and draft solutions, investigating competency restoration, mental health court diversion and the feasibility of a new hospital.
They say it has pros and cons.
“A lot of people have strong feelings of you’re treating someone for their mental illness to then charge them and put them in jail. It’s conflictual for a lot of people,” said Samantha Sweet, the director of mental health.
But there are still questions to be answered, like where it would go, how much it would cost and how to staff it.
The task force’s first report is due to lawmakers in mid-January and will provide a roadmap for lawmakers in the years ahead.
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