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Pettingill: Court for mentally ill ready in ‘weeks’

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A special court aimed at improving the way criminals with mental health problems are dealt with “will be up and running in a matter of weeks”.

The court will be implemented as a pilot programme with legislation establishing it as permanent practice tabled in “short order”, said Attorney General Mark Pettingill.

The move had become a matter of urgency, partly because of the high recidivism rate of mentally ill offenders, he told

The Royal Gazette in an exclusive interview.

“There’s no question that we have to do something about it because it’s more prevalent,” he said. “We have more [homeless people] and a lot of the people that you see on the streets are not well mentally.

“Sometimes they end up involved in petty crimes, or even in more serious crimes, and we need to address it.

“The pilot will be up and running in a matter of weeks and the next big step will be the need to find a residential facility that can house up to ten men [as] this tends to be a male problem.

“We’ll have to see how we’re going to allot resources for that we don’t have millions of dollars to build one. We have to be about austerity, but we have to address these problems.”

The court will be modelled on one in Buffalo, New York with constant monitoring and drug testing of offenders.

A delegation travelled to the area to get a firsthand view of the programme in operation, Mr Pettingill said.

Buffalo was selected because it “had one of the best of examples of a mental health court facility”.

The typical approach in the 60s and 70s was to “medicate” the mentally ill, Mr Pettingill said.

“We’ve learned over the years that can be a fix at the time but eventually you’ve got to let them come back out.

“The challenge is what you do to regulate them when they’re out. You put them away, often you comatose them for a period, and then they come back out,” he said.

“They don’t have to [show up at the Mid Atlantic Wellness Institute]; they don’t have to attend a mental health facility. They stop taking their drugs, sometimes they start taking other drugs that they shouldn’t be taking, and the cycle goes on.”

Government announced its intent to establish a mental health court in last year’s Throne Speech.

“Bermuda can no longer ignore the significant challenge presented by those who commit crimes, but who are mentally ill,” it said then. “The current pattern of mentally ill Bermudians repeatedly entering and exiting the criminal justice system is damaging to them, poses unacceptable risks to society, and cannot be allowed to continue.”

Requests for such a programme had been made by Magistrates’ and Supreme Courts.

In 2011, then Attorney General Michael Scott and the Bermuda Hospitals Board signalled their support for such a court, however Mr Scott said budget cuts meant it would have to remain on the back burner.

Said Mr Pettingill: “Coming in with a new Government we looked at it and said that’s something that we’ve got to address and address promptly. I’m glad to say that in our first quarter of our first year we’ve got right on with that.”

He said judicial monitoring would be a key factor with only extreme cases placed in a secure, specialised facility. Existing resources would also be maximised.

MWI has pledged its support. A forensic psychologist from that facility will give assessment directly to the court, which will be headed up by a magistrate. A community nurse from the Department of Corrections will also be involved.

“That’s an example of how we’re going to streamline what we’ve got,” the Attorney General said. “I’m determined to get these things done and have something that is operational and functional in short order.”

One Bermuda Alliance Attorney General Mark Pettingill
One Bermuda Alliance Attorney General Mark Pettingill
Judges and magistrates have repeatedly called for improving how we handle mentally ill offenders

Between 12 and 15 percent of Bermuda’s prison population are classified as mentally ill.

Judges have often spoken of the need for a special court aimed at improving the way criminals with mental health problems are dealt with.

In 2011, former Chief Justice Sir Richard Ground questioned whether Westgate was a suitably equipped facility for schizophrenic Mark Seaman, who sexually attacked a five-year-old girl.

Seaman had been receiving treatment for the disease and other mental illnesses here and abroad, for 20 years.

Meanwhile, paranoid schizophrenic Lorenzo Robinson committed suicide while in Westgate in 2008.

He was incarcerated on the grounds of insanity after he stabbed an American tourist walking on Front Street, with a six-inch blade.

Robinson’s death followed a six-year battle to secure specialist overseas treatment experts said he needed.

Mr Justice Ground had said the conditions at Westgate were unsuitable for Robinson’s needs and that Mid Atlantic Wellness Institute didn’t have a secure, long-term unit.

Robinson’s death prompted widespread calls for action on the issue of mentally-ill prisoners.

It was stated at the time that “very few people in prison in Bermuda have severe enough mental health issues that they require a specialist facility, which makes it very difficult to maintain an on-Island solution”.

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Published May 13, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 12, 2013 at 11:58 pm)

Pettingill: Court for mentally ill ready in ‘weeks’

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