Repeat offender’s growing rap sheet raises questions about mental health, justice system

Published: Apr. 24, 2023 at 5:56 PM EDT
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BERLIN, Vt. (WCAX) - A repeat offender with mental health challenges appeared before a judge in Burlington on Monday, accused of assaulting a first responder. Micael Bizuneh, 34, pleaded not guilty to assault and unlawful mischief.

But his situation is raising new questions about the revolving door for offenders with unmet mental health needs.

It all went down Sunday morning. Police and EMS crews responded to Harbor Place in Shelburne, where police say Bizuneh damaged one of the rooms.

Bizuneh allegedly attacked and punched one of the first responders, sending them to the hospital.

Appearing in front of a Chittenden County judge virtually on Monday, Bizuneh pleaded not guilty to assault and mischief charges.

From smashing police windshields in Burlington to vandalizing cars in St. Johnsbury, Bizuneh has been arrested in at least six communities across the state in the last two years.

He’s repeatedly been found not competent to stand trial and is not eligible for inpatient treatment, so he’s released on conditions.

Situations like Bizuneh’s-- especially for offenders who are facing more serious charges such as a Burlington man who killed his wife in 2017 and another who murdered a Bennington woman in 2021 have spurred lawmakers to take action. A pair of bills are in the works, one looking to set up a system to regain competency while they await trial, another to create a facility to fill the gap between the criminal justice and mental health systems. The latest proposal in Montpelier would set aside nine beds at the psychiatric hospital in Berlin for offenders with mental health challenges.

“It’s time that we had a place for some of these folks that commit serious crimes,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County.

Vermont is one of a few states not to have a forensic facility. The proposal has been in the works for years. A working group exploring its feasibility last year was not able to reach consensus.

Jack McCullough, who works for Vermont Legal Aid and is also Montpelier’s mayor, is worried poeple with developmental disabilities will be put there, too, and he says lawmakers should put more resources into community mental health centers to treat mental health before it becomes a criminal justice issue.

“Proposals to essentially divert resources to some of the most expensive parts of the system where what we really need to do is concentrate on the basics,” McCullough said.

Back in Shelburne, the owners of Harbor Place say the state needs to step up to the plate.

“You can’t just throw people into a motel room for a few nights hoping it will be OK; it needs more than that,” said Michael Monte of the Champlain Housing Trust.

The Champlain Housing Trust says it will now increase the screening criteria for people applying for housing-- just like with the pods in Burlington-- as a result of this incident.

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