April 24, 2013

Our View: Group home notice bill heavy-handed, unneeded

Requiring towns to be told of residences for forensic patients overlooks the low risk they pose.

Crime, mental illness and public safety all are hot-button issues. A bill before the Legislature touches on all three by requiring the state to give municipalities 120 days’ notice before it opens group homes for people found not criminally responsible for violent acts.

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Group homes for people found not criminally responsible for violent acts house patients whose mental illness has been diagnosed and who are undergoing treatment under strict supervision. The chance that they will commit another violent crime is near zero.

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If L.D. 805, which has divided legislators in committee, becomes law, it would unnecessarily add to an extensive process of checks and balances and aggravate the stigma that people with mental illness already face.

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, proposed the bill in response to the transfer last summer of 16 forensic patients – people who have been found not criminally responsible because of mental illness – from group homes on a former state psychiatric campus to group homes in Augusta neighborhoods. City officials learned of the transfer from the Kennebec Journal.

One of the people authorized to live in the neighborhood group homes is Mark Bechard, who was committed to a state psychiatric hospital after killing two nuns in a Waterville convent in 1996. Another is Enoch Petrucelly, committed to state custody in the 2008 stabbing death of his brother.

The decision to allow Bechard, Petrucelly or any other forensic patient in the community is no snap judgment. The patient has to prove to state and independent psychiatrists and a judge that he or she is mentally stable and committed to a treatment regimen. This process itself can take years.

Group home residents get round-the-clock supervision and can be returned to the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center if they don’t follow their court-ordered treatment plan or caregivers believe they need more support.

Wilson, the bill’s co-sponsor, says he wants to ensure that municipal officials aren’t caught off-guard by the opening of a group home, as Augusta officials were last summer. But a notification mandate is already in place: The state must inform police or the sheriff’s department when someone is released into the community.

Law enforcement officials are equipped to work with group home staff, learn how to assess whether a patient poses a risk to anyone else in the community and track the number of complaints at a group home. And we also should be able to count on police to share this information with municipal officials, unless we want to force the state to oversee internal municipal communications.

The crimes committed by Bechard and Petrucelly received a lot of media attention, which undoubtedly has fueled neighbors’ fears for their own safety – but these concerns shouldn’t be used to shape public policy.

The fact is that because of the state’s strict supervision process, the chance that a forensic patient will commit another violent crime is near zero. Their mental illness has been recognized, and they’re undergoing treatment.

“It’s the people out there who aren’t getting the treatment they need who are the forensic patients of the future. That’s what frightens me,” Augusta Mayor William Stokes, head of the criminal division of the Maine Attorney General’s Office, has said in regard to the Augusta group home controversy.

Stokes acknowledged that the perception of the risk to public safety posed by people with mental illness is far different from the reality. Voting down L.D. 805 would show that legislators have grasped this as well.

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