Federal panel examining the criminalization of people with mental illnesses in Maine

Mentally Ill Rights

LEWISTON, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Some law enforcement officials are calling Maine's mental health system shattered.

The comments came during a forum examining the criminalization of people with mental illnesses. Panel members heard stories from police and county jail officials about how they're having to deal with people who should be in a clinical setting, not locked up behind bars.

More and more, police say they are dealing with people suffering from mental health issues. With nowhere to place them in the community, those people more than likely end up in jail. 

"So there's sort of that gap in between where they need some help," said Aroostook County Sheriff Darrell Crandall, "but they're not a threat to themselves and they're not a threat to someone else, so you keep going back to the well over and over again."

Here in Maine, the problem starts early. At Long Creek, the juvenile detention center, 85 percent of the youth arrive with some sort of mental health issue.

"Long Creek is not a medical facility, it's not a hospital. They need something greater," said Tonya DiMillo, chairman of the center's board of visitors.

Police say they are dealing with the situation the best they can. In Portland, a mental health liaison works with the department every day.

"You have a uniformed police officer and you have a trained mental health worker that are walking through the door together, to try to try to work through whatever situation we may have," said Chief Michael Sauschuck.

But that's not the case in rural areas, where sheriff's departments have much larger areas to cover and not a lot of resources.

"There is no opportunity to call in the specialist and therefore we are stuck doing it ourselves," said Sheriff Crandall.

The US Commission on Civil Rights is working to bring attention to this issue in hopes of pushing state leaders and community groups to work together to offer the mentally ill more services.

"These are real people's lives and the human cost of not making sure that a community is safe and not making sure people have the mental health treatment that they deserve when they need it, that is devastating," said Commission Chair Catherine Lhamon.

With more community-based programs, it's less likely that people with mental illness will come into contact with police in the first place. And for those who do, there will be better options to help them. 

© 2017 WCSH-TV


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