Controversial cases spotlight mental health-criminal justice gap

The controversy over three high-profile cases dropped last week by Chittenden County’s top prosecutor has highlighted crucial gaps the state faces when it comes to carrying out criminal justice and the treatment of mentally ill offenders.

The murder and attempted murder suspects were deemed insane at the time of the crimes, so their cases were handed off to the Vermont Department of Mental Health for treatment. But the department raised its own alarm, saying they could not promise public safety.

“We provide that mental health treatment in the least restrictive settings possible,” said Vermont Mental Health Commissioner Sarah Squirrell. She says that is their mission — treating patients’ mental illnesses and not holding them in the hospital if they don’t need to be there. “We are not in the business of assuring public safety.”

Squirrell says there’s an important distinction missed by many in recent discussions about the role her department has in deciding whether a patient in their care needs hospitalization. One of the criteria for that is that a patient is a danger to themselves or others.

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