Vt. lawmakers address mental health criminal justice gap

Published: Oct. 18, 2019 at 5:33 PM EDT
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Vermont lawmakers are looking at a fix for a perceived gap between the criminal justice system and mental health system.

Proposed legislation is still in the early stages but it would give the state more oversight over mental health cases in the criminal system.

It comes after Chittenden County State's Attorney Sara George this spring dropped three high-profile insanity defense cases, saying the evidence clearly showed all three were insane at the time of the crimes and could not be convicted. The move raised questions about potential shortcomings of the criminal justice system in dealing with violent offenders who suffer from mental illness.

The proposed bill sets a three-year mental health facility commitment period for those found not guilty by reason of insanity. It also requires officials to hold a hearing before the Department of Mental Health before the offender can leave treatment.

"That would allow at least the state to have some role in ensuring public safety in the future should that person be released from the mental health system," said Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, who helped write the bill.

State mental health officials say the bill opens up a new discussion on where to house offenders who commit the most heinous crimes. If a court requires an offender to be confined, that can conflict with current state laws that require the Department of Mental Health to treat patients in settings which are the least restrictive environment.

"This piece can potentially put us in a very, as I mentioned in my testimony, an untenable position of either being in conflict with a state law or a court order saying you have to keep someone in the hospital and our federal regulation which says they don't have to be in the hospital so you have to discharge," said Vermont Department of Mental Health Deputy Commissioner Mourning Fox.

So where will those found not guilty by insanity go if they can't go to a prison, but aren't fit for a hospital? Lawmakers and mental health experts are calling for an intermediary forensic facility where they could stay, keeping them out of corrections and away from other mentally ill patients.

"There's no forensic facility within corrections so it's all within the Department of Mental Health, which has very few facilities," Sen. Sears said.

State leaders say Vermont is one of the only states without an adequate forensic step-down facility. A facility was built in Middlesex after Tropical Storm Irene but it's small and the temporary structure is now considered in dire need of replacement.

Mental heath officials Friday also suggested bringing in a third party which could help lawmakers understand how best to set up a forensic system of care.