Thirty years ago, Maine entered into the AMHI Consent Decree in which the Augusta Mental Health Institute was closed (for valid reasons) and community mental health options were promised to the people of Maine. We are still waiting.

In the meantime (30 years I remind you), the criminal justice system and the emergency rooms across the state have become the de facto mental health provider for our most vulnerable community members. County jails have become accustomed to trying to do their best to provide mental health treatment for individuals caught up in the criminal justice system. While their efforts are commendable and necessary, they know, as we all do, that they cannot meet the complicated needs of these individuals, and oftentimes while they are incarcerated their mental health worsens.

The other option to try to address this need has become our hospital emergency departments. Again, like the corrections officers at the jail, the emergency departments are going above and beyond to try to help. However, there is too much that they cannot do, and the results have been people receiving inadequate treatment, and hospital staff suffering the consequences of having patients who need a different type of care.

During the last few years with the criminal justice system being relied on as the safety net, it has been corrections officers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges who have had a front row seat to see this human tragedy unfold, and it is why in Cumberland County, we have been taking steps to make positive, actionable, and practical changes.

In 2018, a group of stakeholders in Cumberland County, including the court, the Cumberland County DA’s Office, defense attorneys, mental health providers and advocates, law enforcement, housing advocates, and Maine Pretrial Services, have been working to divert people from the criminal justice system and reduce the number of people with mental health needs from languishing in jail. During the early part of our work, we were able to help move individuals out of jail and into locations to receive the medical attention that they needed. The work has evolved by necessity to now make systematic changes that we see when it comes to resources, housing and staffing. With this mindset, and through the help of Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, L.D. 1968, “An Act To Expand Access to Mental Health and Crisis Care for Individuals in Jails and Individuals Experiencing Homelessness,” is now in front of the Legislature.

L.D. 1968 is a collaborative effort among stakeholders in the criminal justice system, Community Housing of Maine (CHOM), Spurwink, Maine Health, Northern Light, Disability Rights Maine, NAMI Maine and other individuals who believe it is overdue to make real reforms in this area. The legislation proposes the following:

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• solutions through housing with a “Frequent Users System Engagement (FUSE)” collaborative (which creates opportunities for individuals to find housing and then, once housed, keep their housing by receiving necessary supports that address such issues);

• increasing the supply of community-based supports for individuals with mental health needs;

• increasing data collection of available resources;

• updates to Title 15 MRSA 101 (which govern the laws around mental health evaluations in the court system).

These steps create an actionable path that will divert people with mental health needs from the criminal justice system and emergency departments to other appropriate resources that can do immediate work, which is a more sustainable long-term approach.

We need to pass L.D. 1968, regardless of its price tag. We need to be honest that spending a penny on this issue today will save a dollar in the future. More important, with the mental health crisis at emergency levels already, L.D. 1968 will save and improve the lives of many of our community members.

It is time we all take that step together. We cannot wait another 30 years.

— Special to the Telegram


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