April 24, 2013

System already exists to oversee group homes

'Forensic patients of the future' cause more concern than those under 24-hour care

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 notify municipalities before it opens group homes for people found not criminally responsible for violent acts.

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

Wilson says he wants to make sure that municipal officials aren't caught off-guard by the announcement of a new group home, as Augusta officials were last summer. A notification mandate is already in place, however: The state is required to 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, 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 should be able to count on police to share this information with municipal officials, unless we want 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. These concerns, however, 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 getting 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 flap.

Regarding the risk to public safety posed by people with mental illness, the perception is different from the reality, as Stokes acknowledged. Voting down L.D. 805 would show that legislators also are capable of grasping this truth.

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