A state official will not be held in contempt of court for allowing a mentally ill man to sit in jail for nearly a month while awaiting proper treatment. But that doesn’t mean the state is off the hook.

On Nov. 9, Joseph Lluvera, 44, of Brunswick, was found incompetent to stand trial on a range of charges and committed to a state-run mental health treatment center with the goal of regaining competency. Instead, with no beds available in a special wing at Riverview Psychiatric Center, he stayed in the Cumberland County Jail for nearly a month.

After nearly three weeks, Lluvera’s attorney, Sarah Branch, filed a motion asking that the acting commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services be reprimanded by the court, not only for Lluvera’s predicament but also for the ongoing shortage of beds that puts many other Mainers with mental illness in the same situation – languishing in jails, unable to get the help they need.

Branch said she knows of four other cases in which a mentally ill person was kept in jail, for times ranging from 12 to 40 days; the issue has been cited dozens of times dating back years.

The judge last week dismissed the motion, saying that because Lluvera had since been moved to Riverview, the motion as it pertained to Lluvera was moot.

As to the larger issue, the judge said the delay of treatment was “of great concern to the court,” but otherwise outside its jurisdiction.


The judge is right. The problem falls to the governor and the Legislature, which, in the years since the deinstitutionalization of the state’s mentally ill, have never built the necessary capacity for treatment. And as mental illness has surged in recent years, the system has been overwhelmed.

That’s why so many Mainers end up in jail only after their untreated mental illness causes them to commit a crime, and why so many people who’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness are left in jail anyway.

For the latter group, the problem is a lack of space at state-run psychiatric hospitals, which have not kept up with the rising demand for beds as the number of Mainers found incompetent to stand trial has ballooned.

The LePage administration has for years made bungled attempts to add beds, offering half-baked plans and refusing to work with legislators and other stakeholders. The governor’s latest – and final – plan is to build a new facility on state property in Bangor, but it will be up to Gov.-elect Janet Mills to either continue to implement his mismanaged plan or try something else.

First, Mills needs to determine if the plan will solve the overcrowding problem it is intended to fix, and then if it can be funded in a way that doesn’t take resources from the much-needed community-based initiatives that keep mental illness in check, and keep the mentally ill out of the legal system in the first place.

Mainers dealing with mental illness need help, and when it’s bad enough, they need help in a hospital. Instead, too many are suffering in jails, often confused, with their health deteriorating.

It’s a waste of resources that will cost more in the long run, and it’s wrong on top of that. Branch may not have a court case, but she does have a point: “I know we can do better as a community.”

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