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Mentally Ill Offenders and a Revolving Door System

In Burlington VT, Saturday October 7, 2017, a 41 year old homeless man, Jason Breault, was threatening people with a knife at a downtown intersection. The BPD responded, and an officer was injured while apprehending Breault. Breault was charged with felony aggravated assault and three misdemeanors. This was the 29th crime Breault has been charged with in the past 10 months.  In August, 40 year old Michael Reynolds was arrested for assaulting a café owner. Since 2011, Reynolds has had 900 contacts with local PD, 117 arrests, and 31 convictions. Yet he is still out.

That these men are mentally ill or addicts can only be speculated on without a mental health and substance abuse evaluation.  What can be ascertained from the media reports is they are both homeless, their behavior is erratic, violent, disturbing to the law abiding public as well as a threat to more peaceful homeless people, and they commit frequent criminal acts.  Prior to about the 1970’s, there were state operated institutions where the severely, chronically mentally ill were placed, sometimes for day or weeks, sometimes for months or years. They had housing, received medical care, psychiatric treatment, counseling, and supervision to keep them safe. They were confined because they were unable to care for themselves and function insoceity. The deinstitutionalization movement came about in the 1960’s and spread throughout the United States. The concept of deinstitutionalization was very logical, but highly flawed. Give severely chronically mentally ill people medication to suppress and manage their symptoms. Release them to the community, at best, to halfway houses and community residents, or supported apartment programs where they could live independently or semi independently, with supervision or assistance from staff, and hold a job, and have freedom in a minimally restrictive setting, and enjoy an improved quality of life. This overly optimistic appraisal was flawed for a few simple reasons and it turned into a disaster which is known as the biggest public health failure in history. The medications given to the severely mentally ill are heavy on side effects, both longer term and short, term, and are very unpleasant to take. People would have the grim choice of taking the medication and suffering the side effects, not taking the meds and suffering the symptoms or the illness, or drinking and drugging themselves insensible to suppress the symptoms. People would stop taking the meds, or at worst be dumped from the hospitals without a place to stay, meds, or follow up. These people would have to live on the street, go off their meds, and their behavior would become erratic. Most mentally ill people are nonviolent. The few that are violent tend to act out habitually, and slide between the cracks of the criminal justice and mental health systems. They tend to have multiple contacts with law enforcement; they are a threat to the community, and lower the quality of life in a neighborhood with public displays of erratic and disturbing behavior. 

Compassion and kindness need to be defined. It is not kind to put mentally ill people on the street with absolutely no support or resources, in freezing cold or sweltering heat, where they live a nightmarish life of paranoia, delusions and hallucinations which can result in public acting out. Granted, institutions had more than their share of problems, but an argument could be made that institutionalization would be kinder. It could also lower the endless cycle of acting out, arrest, stabilization, and release to the street.