Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor: “The mental health system has been in disarray for the last 16 years and it got a lot worse over the last eight."
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The use of county jails to house the mentally ill in Maine has gone from being a perceived crisis to almost a fact of life – even though state and county officials almost unanimously agree this is the worst solution to a growing problem.

As Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, Senate chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, sees it, “The mental health system has been in disarray for the last 16 years” – the beginning of the Baldacci administration – “and it got a lot worse over the last eight,” as the LePage administration “fired a lot of good people with institutional knowledge.”

Reversing that downward trend will take time, but Gratwick is encouraged by a bill now before his committee to strengthen the state’s crisis intervention and stabilization services. LD 803, sponsored by Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, would provide $4.4 million for a variety of services, and allow hiring, or rehiring, of peer support specialists, recovery coaches, mental health police liaisons and other crisis workers.

The bill, which originally called for building four new crisis centers, was completely redrafted, Warren said, after a mental health task force she co-chaired “made it clear it wasn’t more bricks and mortar we needed, but early intervention to head off the crises that are putting so many people in jail.”

The task force verdict was unanimous. “Everyone – the sheriffs, the judges, the prosecutors, the mental health workers, the division directors – told us this was what was needed,” Warren said.

Gratwick said he applauds that approach: “It’s the first time I’ve seen it acknowledged that we have to rebuild the system, from the ground up.”

Although the bill is styled as a “jail diversion” program, Warren said it is appropriately being considered by the HHS Committee, rather than Criminal Justice and Public Safety, where she’s the House chairwoman.

All too often, she said, “We are locking up the mentally ill simply because there’s no other place for them to go.” The numbers tell the story: some 86 percent of jail inmates are now receiving medications for mental illness.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell: “When police respond, there are only two options, to take the person to the hospital or take them to the jail. These options are the most expensive and the least effective.”

The measure has earned key support from Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee and of the mental health working group, who testified at a hearing Feb. 24 that “strengthening our current system will allow us to help more people who are in crisis while saving the state money.”

Warren pointed out that the cost of incarceration is far greater than mental health services: “When police respond, there are only two options, to take the person to the hospital or take them to the jail. These options are the most expensive and the least effective.”

Meagan Sway of the ACLU of Maine sees it as an individual rights issue, and testified that underfunding of community mental health services has made jails “warehouses for people suffering from mental illness, substance use disorder, and poverty.” In 1978, she said, Maine jails held 319 people; four decades later, the number is 1,724 – a 540 percent increase.

The Mills administration offered cautiously supportive testimony. Jessica Pollard, director of the HHS Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, pointed to an administration plan for a crisis center in Cumberland County, $1 million for new programs, and $750,000 from the AMHI Consent decree to improve staff recruitment and training.

Funding for LD 803 wasn’t part of Mills’ supplemental budget request, but Warren believes the Legislature can find the money by shifting priorities. She doesn’t support the administration’s request for more than a dozen new state police officers, and objects to funding a new marijuana crimes unit.

Gratwick said lawmakers may not fully fund LD 803, but predicted it will receive substantial new dollars, and said, “this is the right approach to meet an overwhelming need.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and former editor of Maine Times.