LTE: On Vt. prisons and mental health

Dear Editor,

Happy New Year! Every January I like to take the time to read the Governor’s address to the state. This helps me determine if he understands both the challenges, and triumphs of every Vermonter. I was buoyed by his 500 mile trip around our state to not only see what condition our state is in, but to also understand the differences.

I was struck about his remark “we still have not finished rebuilding our mental health system. This has led to fewer options for patients. And too often they end up in emergency departments, which are not equipped to care for them.” What he left unsaid, or omitted, is an ugly truth: Far too many of this population end up in Vermont prisons.

Alisha Roth, an author who traveled the country visiting prisons, wrote in her book “America has never quite known what to do with the mentally ill, and Roth argues that the latest solution — lock them up! — is the worst option of all: morally wrong, medically wrong, and economically wrong.” (Insane America’s Treatment of the Mentally Ill).

I believe that is true here in Vermont. Many of these same folks have co-occurring disorders like substance abuse. Oftentimes they fit hand in glove. We don’t have adequate substance abuse treatment options, in spite of the much bragged about “hub and spoke” model. This model is a baby step, people still experience two-week wait times, and many have transportation challenges. The few mental health treatment centers may take someone, but if actively using they are turned down. Oftentimes the marriage of mental health issues, and substance abuse contribute to crime and incarceration. The Governor goes on to say “It’s a reminder of what happens when we lose focus on the fundamentals and don’t finish what we start.” Many families have paid dearly for this loss of focus. May this be the year to finish.

The department of correction’s proposed budger for 2023 is $174.090,000(that is 174 million folks!) and one hundred sixty million, five hundred thousand is coming from the General Fund! Think if we had invested in more mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities, we could lower the amount of people who break the law, and spend less time and money on incarceration. Think of the renewed public health and safety!

I was actually surprised at the Governor’s remark when discussing law enforcement and accountability ” I believe it has to include a sincere look at well-intentioned reforms that are having unintended consequences. Whether that’s expunging records that could lead to a violent offender getting a gun.” This proposed expungement bill did not change the existing law of what crimes qualify for expungement, rather the bill simply wanted to change a two track system of sealing and expungement, into a one track system. It did not enlarge the umbrella of offenses that are eligible for sealing and expungement. (H.534)

The Governor vetoed this bill, which was passed by both the house and senate. In the inaugaration speech he tries to create an image that he is protecting us from expunging dangerous crimes so the people responsible for these crimes can run out and buy a gun. This rhetoric does not create support for criminal legal reform and inspires false fears. To recieve an expungement under the present law, it must be a qualifying crime. For misdemeanor convictions, five years must have passed since the completion of the sentence. For felony convictions 10 years must have passed since completing the sentence without any further arrests.

I also believe that his comment sets the stage for another legal reform: The qualified immunity legislation that will be reheard in this session. Right now, as private citizens, we can’t hold a police officer accountable for violating our constitutional rights. The Governor, The Vermont Training Council, Vermont Leagues of Cities and Towns, Sheriff’s association, etc. placed a full court press to this proposed bill in the last legislative session. I believe that only police officers that do not follow the law need to be accountable for their behavior. I am accountable at my job. In nursing I can be fired and lose my license if I don’t follow policy and procedure with resultant harm. Why should the police have this special protection? I would think if you were doing your job and following the rules there would be no issue. Just like my job.

In closing, I hope the Governor delivers on his promises. I believe he is aware of the issues, and I am hoping that he truly supports all the people, especially the vulnerable populations, like our substance abuse folks and those with mental illness. We do not show our humanity when we choose to spend lavishly on our prisons, and fail to fund the mental health facilities and addiction treatment services so desperately needed. May this year be restorative.

Leslie M. Thorsen,

Chester Vt.

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