Will better mental health care help stop crime in Vermont?

Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 6:08 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - The three branches of government gathered in Montpelier on Thursday for the first-ever judiciary-led mental health summit. The goal-- to better address issues of mental health of so many going through the court system and hopefully prevent others from going through the system in the first place.

Addressing repeat offenders and those who constantly cycle through the system thanks in part to mental health issues was a top priority of the summit.

“What we’re really talking about are low-level misdemeanor crimes, and particularly people who recidivate, who commit the same crime over and over again, need treatment and they’re not getting it,” Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber said.

Justice Reiber is the chair of the commission to address these issues. He says court employees often also take the brunt of the frustrations of those suffering from mental illness.

The summit is helping to get the conversation going about finding a new way to deal with mentally ill offenders.

“The incarceration, the services that are available are very limited and the incarceration sometimes can even exacerbate the problem,” Reiber said.

A possible alternative approach could be found in Florida. A judge for Miami-Dade County explained how they have dramatically cut down on repeat offenders through pre- and post-arrest diversion systems that keep offenders with mental illness out of courts and jails.

“This is not a criminal justice problem. It is a societal problem that we haven’t dealt with properly. So it’s burdened and ended up in the criminal justice and the civil system. And so the courts have really got to the point where we’ve recognized it’s not working, where we’ve become more a part of the problem than the solution,” said Judge Steven Leifman of Miami-Dade County.

Sen. Ginny Lyons says it’s important to talk with all three branches of government to find solutions that don’t conflict with each other.

“We’ll work together with the courts, with the executive branch to understand what’s needed and then, you know, it all falls on our shoulders to build the policies that are going to work once they’re implemented,” said Lyons, D-Chittenden County.

Some solutions could include more robust diversion programs where offenders go into mental health counseling and not just restorative justice so that offenders can overcome their struggles and not return to crime.

But right now, what the price tag would be for implementing it is unclear.