AUGUSTA — People with serious mental health conditions who cross paths with criminal justice system are often languishing for weeks and even months in county jails because the state doesn’t have enough space to house and treat them in secure medical or mental health facilities, lawmakers were told Friday.

It’s a longstanding problem for law enforcement, hospitals and the court system, and it’s again before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which heard graphic testimony on the issue.

Defense attorney Sarah Branch said a bill before the committee to create “assessment centers” in Portland and Bangor, where people experiencing mental health crises could voluntarily be evaluated and cared for in a secure setting, is a “lovely” concept. But Branch, who works with indigent clients in Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties, said her clients often are not competent enough to consent to treatment.

Branch offered the committee her perspective “from the trenches in the mud looking up.” She told of clients who were kept naked in jail cells, on suicide watch. Branch said people with profound mental health issues often end up in jail because in Maine, there is no other safe place for them.

Retired Maine Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills spoke about her work with defendants with serious mental health issues and the development of what has been dubbed the “languishing committee” in Cumberland County. The panel was formed because county jail staff were seeing many people suffering mental health crises becoming trapped in the criminal justice system.

Mills managed to create an expedited court docketing system designed to get people with mental health issues out of jail and into appropriate treatment.

“The docket handles criminal defendants who are mentally ill, who may not be competent to stand trial, who may not be criminally responsible for their alleged crimes and who require mental health services, treatment and medicine – and they do not require incarceration,” Mills said.

Maine has had problems providing bed space for those with forensic mental health problems since 2013, including the decertification and loss of federal funding at the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta – the largest of the state’s two secure mental health hospitals.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland has submitted a bill to move forward with an assessment center for people in mental health crisis in Cumberland County. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Although federal funding for Riverview has since been restored, the 92-bed facility has ongoing waiting lists for patients who are either deemed not criminally responsible for their crimes or who are awaiting a forensic evaluation to determine if they are mentally competent to stand trial.

How many more beds the state needs and how to pay for them are lingering questions for the Legislature and the committee. Lawmakers last year approved adding 45 beds and accompanying staff, but it could be five years before these are ready for patients, officials have said.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, the committee’s House chair, said there is little doubt the state has a pressing need and limited capacity. She and other lawmakers were receptive to the bill proposed by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, to create two assessment centers for those in mental health crisis.

Talbot-Ross said the center would save state and county government money by reducing costs for the criminal justice system.

She said the pilot project in Cumberland County, where demand is high because of the population, could be used to develop best practices for similar facilities in other parts of Maine. Her bill calls for the development of two centers – one in Portland and one in Bangor.

The Maine Hospital Association also testified in favor of Talbot Ross’s bill Friday.

Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, a former police chief and Maine State Police detective, said police are often faced with two equally difficult options when people are dealing with a mental health crisis – taking them to the nearest emergency room or to jail to keep them safe.

He urged the committee to pressure other lawmakers to prioritize funding for mental health services in the state budget.

“It’s going to cost many dollars to correct these things,” Pickett said. “And I want these things to succeed, I want these people to be helped, I want law enforcement to be helped in dealing with them, but I want these people and their families to be treated humanely.”

The committee will take up the issue again during a work session at the State House on Wednesday.

 


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